It is an honor to be here, and I must say that of all the thousands of meetings I have attended in my lifetime, this may well be among the most important, because we are talking about nothing less than saving our planet. You can’t get more elemental or basic than that.
I would like to focus your attention on Earth’s most valuable and most neglected natural resource: women. We are more than half the world’s population. In myth, tradition and history, we have been identified with Mother Nature, the nurturing female, creator of life, spirit of the Earth’s bounty, capricious and unpredictable in her rule over natural forces. It is an image that has been pleasing to many male philosophers, writers and leaders because, by contrast, it assigns to the male sex dominion over the intellect, rationality, science and technology as well as the power—or should I say hubris—to tame and control nature in the name of progress for humankind.
As we now know, that has not worked out very well because much of what has been done in the name of progress and growth and development has been done without much regard for the effects on human beings—women, men and children—on water, air and soil, on our delicately balanced, intricately interconnected global ecology.
As a feminist and a mother, I fully value women’s roles as creators of life and caretakers of family and home. These are not the only things we do, nor are they what every woman does. But almost everything we do is related to the trinity, or ABCs, of Our Common Future—environment, sustainable development and population.
All over the developing world, women interact most closely with the environment—as farmers, stock breeders, suppliers of fuel and water. They are the managers—and often the preservers—of natural resources. According to a UN estimate, women account for over half the food produced in developing countries, and for more than three-fourths of the family food supply in Africa. As many as one-third of rural households are headed by women, with women increasingly making decisions on production, land use, fertilizers, pesticides—that affect the environment in so many ways.
Women are not only land managers but innovators in crop use and monitors of plant species. Women are also primary users of water in agriculture. They have a compelling interest in the availability and good quality of water supplies. In many societies, women are also responsible for the care and maintenance of trees. They spend precious hours walking enormous distances to gather wood for fuel, for heating and cooking. Forests also provide them with fodder, medicinal plants, wild fruits, and raw materials. As major users of forests, women are sensitive to their value and aware of the need to limit the rate of exploitation so that forests can be regenerated and preserved for future generations.
In industrialized as well as developing economies, in factories, offices and communities are situated near toxic dumps, women are exposed to a variety of environmental hazards and pollutants. One constant is that their work is undervalued and underpaid. As a result, women and their children are the most numerous and poorest of the poor. They are victimized by hunger, illiteracy, poor health, scarce social and technical services and denial of birth control services to those who want and need them, although three different UN conferences have agreed that family planning is a human right. Because infant mortality in the developing countries is ten times that of the industrialized nations, women in those countries have many more pregnancies to replace babies lost. Therefore, maternal mortality rates are two hundred times higher than those in the developed countries. And every year fifteen million babies die from illnesses related to malnutrition, lack of sanitation or similar preventable situations.
Women, however, are not just victims. We are thinkers, organizers, and activists. We are part of a worldwide women’s movement that has brought into every nation of the world, no matter how poor or oppressed, the message that women can work together to take control of our lives and to bring our collective experience, wisdom, and numbers into the areas where the policies and decisions are being made about the future of our planet.
I would remind you that it was a woman scientist, Rachel Carson, whose book, "Silent Spring," alerted the world to the startling effects of water and soil pollution. It was thousands of women marching and demonstrating against dangerous Strontium 90 nuclear fallout who helped to win the ban on atmospheric nuclear tests and who have continued their struggle against the nuclear arms race and hazards in areas ranging from Greenham Common, Europe and the U.S. to Africa and Asia. In the endangered islands of the South Pacific, women have organized to demand a Pacific nuclear-free zone and to protest the plundering of their land and fragile ecosystems by foreign companies.
In India, it was Vandana Shiva and the women of the Chipko movement who embraced the trees on which their livelihoods depended to prevent them from being chopped down. It was Professor Wangari Maathai of Kenya who initiated Africa’s remarkable Green Belt rescue operation, with women planting more than seven million trees. It was Lois Gibbs, a so-called “ordinary housewife” in upstate New York, who exposed the chemical poisoning of her community’s homes and schools. She is one among hundreds of thousands of women in my country who have become environmental activists. It is women like Petra Kelly of West Germany and others who have taken the leadership in organizing Green Parties, in which women have an equal voice. And, most important, it was Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s vision and leadership as head of the UN Commission on Environment and Development that told us of “our common future” and what we must do to assure that we have a livable future. Dr. Brundtland is an inspiring example of what can happen when the right woman is in the right place.
And that brings me to the crux of the matter. Women are both affected by and effectors of the environmental crisis. We must be part—a central part—of the solution. Our views on economic justice, human rights, reproduction and the achievement of peace—all elements of the environment/development crisis—must be heard at local, national, and international forums wherever policies and decisions are made that can affect the future of life on our planet.
Women are participating in large numbers at the grassroots levels, but in the overwhelming majority of nations, we still lack effective political power. And that is also true in the United Nations—in the Secretariat and in the member nation delegations. We have no assurance, let alone guarantees, that member nations will appoint significant numbers of women—say from thirty to fifty percent—to their delegations to the 1992 Brazil conference, or even to their advisory groups. After a UN Decade of Women, which lasted from 1975 to 1985, it was only earlier this month in Vienna that the UN Commission on the Status of Women passed a resolution recommending that the UN Secretariat seek to have 35% of its staff positions allotted to women by 1995. Nothing has been said about the disgraceful absence of women from member state delegations. But we can say it, and I know and believe that UNCED Secretary General Maurice Strong is eager to encourage and assist in increasing the participation of women in all phases of the 1992 meeting, including its official and unofficial preparatory meetings. We welcome that.
In 1989, the Women’s Foreign Policy Council, of which I am co-chair, initiated a Women and the Environment Program. We circulated a Pledge of Allegiance to the Family of Earth and a Women’s Declaration of Interdependence, saying that whenever and wherever people meet to decide the fate of the planet, it is women’s intention to participate in an equal footing with full and fair representation, equivalent to our number and kind on Earth. We held briefings for leaders of major women’s organizations on environmental issues, and sent a letter to President Bush signed by more than a hundred distinguished women leaders and environmental activists, asking that he meet with us to hear our views and offering our help. To date, there has been no response. But we are continuing our work because women are enthusiastic about our efforts and are seeking ways to show their concern.
At our World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet, we will seek to bring together a broadly representative gathering of a thousand or more women, from every part of the globe. Briefly, we want to spotlight women’s expertise, leadership skills, roles and need for support in environmental protection and sustainable development. We want to tell the world about the many women’s “success stories” in safeguarding the environment and reaching self-sufficiency. We want to develop a Women’s Environmental Action Agenda to present to the 1992 UN conference, parallel meetings—such as the proposed Congress of the People of Earth—and to official and unofficial policy-making groups for the rest of the decade.
And we are planning to conclude our Congress with a tribunal of women heads of state to which we will present our views. There aren’t many of them—only about a half-dozen—but we believe this event can send a powerful message to the world’s leaders that women will be heard, we will be present, we will participate.
The significance of the 1992 conference is not just what statements will emerge from that meeting, but the process leading up to it and continuing beyond 1992. All over the world, ordinary citizens are coming forward to assert their democratic and human rights, and concern about the environment permeates their demands. Women are both leaders and rank-and-filers in that movement, and we can be a mighty force. We are working with Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), women’s groups, environmentalists and UNEP’s Senior Women’s Advisory Group to organize a truly international planning committee. We welcome your participation, ideas, and support.
Some of you may have been at the UN Decade of Women conferences in Nairobi in 1985. That was where global feminism came of age—a symbol of sisterhood, of international women’s networks, of our hopes for a better, fairer, safer world. Nairobi was the birthplace of the “Forward-Looking Strategies” document, the most comprehensive historic statement of our agenda, encompassing peace, equality, human rights, sustainable development and environmental protection.
Now we must move on and expand our vision. The women’s movement is strong and continues to grow. We are everywhere, and we will be heard . . . or else we—women, men and children—will all hear from Mother Nature. Remember, hell hath no fury like a woman—or an Earth—scorned and despoiled.
Bella Abzug, “Women and the Fate of the Earth,” Woman of Power 20 (1991): 26-30.