Pro Environmental Activities to Promote Rural Women’s Empowerment

rural women India

The rising environmental threat of global warming is putting the rural poor at an economic disadvantage. In 2009, the chief of United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Helen Clark highlighted how climate change is affecting the livelihood of the world’s poor. The extension of desert lands, reduction of forest covers and irregular rainfall patters are undermining the survival of the rural poor.

A recent report by the United Nations titled “Women, Gender Equality and Climate Change” pointed out that rural women are most directly affected by such changes because they are the primary food, water and fuel gatherers for the family.

This situation has focused the attention of social activist organizations working in rural areas to empower women and enlist their support in preserving the environment for their own sake. Environmental activist Vandana Shiva says, “Women’s movements are protecting the environment while also empowering themselves for their livelihoods.” For example, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) spearheaded by Medha Patkar is actively engaged in women’s empowerment initiatives and education of tribal women in the region.

Acclaimed Indian economist Bina Agarwal says, “Women’s involvement in forest governance would benefit conservation and biodiversity, since they often have considerable knowledge about the species they collect daily.” Bina Agarwal’s research indicates that if women constitute about one-third of the membership in the local forest councils, they can gain an effective collective voice and bring about considerable improvement in the forest conditions. When women are trained and equipped to use alternative environment-friendly sources of energy such as solar power, they do not need to cut the trees to use as firewood.

Secondly, women can raise their collective voice against illegal deforestation activities because their livelihood depends on the forests and biodiversity of the region. (1)

The Barli Development Institute for Rural Women in Madhya Pradesh has a fundamental mission to empower young rural and tribal women to become the agents for social change through acquisition of a wide range of skills and knowledge. The key idea of this institution is that when rural women are trained in literacy, hygiene, nutrition, income generation and environmental conservation, they can become the pillars of progress for their villages and communities. The institute has led the way by using solar cookers as a classic case in point. A solar cooker is a pro environmental tool that can enhance the rural women’s ability to cook efficiently without having to collect firewood, and also save the environment in the process. (2)

There is another classic instance where illiterate rural women are becoming “Solar Engineers.” The credit for this unique initiative goes to “The Barefoot College” that began nearly four decades ago in a remote village called Tilonia in Rajasthan. The college is exclusively run on solar power. The mission of the college is to identify and develop traditional skills and put them to productive use while saving the environment at the same time. Till now Barefoot’s women solar engineers have brought solar electricity to more than 500 villages in India. The organization is training more illiterate mothers and grandmothers in how to fabricate charge controllers, invertors, solar lanterns and install them in each house in the village they come from. (3)

It has also been observed that environmental groups with more women outperform other groups in improving forest conditions, despite getting poorer forests. Whenever women are involved actively in such projects, it leads to better environmental protection, helps the use of their knowledge of local biodiversity, and raises children's awareness about environmental conservation. (4)

It only goes to establish the fact that women and the environment have a close engagement with each other at the grassroots level in rural regions. Therefore, active participation of rural women in pro environmental activities can lead to more effective results. At the same time, it can empower rural women by making them in-charge of the environmental initiatives and also provide them more earning opportunities by using innovative environment friendly tools and technologies. The government, women’s organizations and environmental NGO’s must come together to pave the way for rural women’s empowerment through pro environmental activities.


- Vikas Vij (views expressed in the article are that of the author)


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