Ecofeminism in Public International Law

Ecofeminism in Public International Law

[Nandini Gupta is a final-year law student.]

“The Earth is my sister; I love her daily grace, her silent daring, and how loved I am. How we admire this strength in each other, all that we have lost, all that we have suffered, all that we know. We are stunned by this beauty, and I do not forget: what she is to me, what I am to her.”

Susan Griffin

Hobbes argued that the inherent nature of man was selfish and brutish, and the current day society stands testament to his ideology. As the caveman evolved into a hunter-gatherer, eventually to form ‘civil’ societies, the notion of progress and development became interchangeable with exploitation and oppression. As nature became subservient to human needs, and the fairer sex became second class citizens in their own homes, women and the environment started bearing the cost for ‘development’. 

Ecofeminism, as conceived by Francoise d’Eaubonne in the late 1970s, is a feminist critique of the environmental movement and an ecological critique of feminism. Establishing an intersectional relation between the oppression faced by women and the environment, it emphasised on how commonalities can be traced between the lived experiences of most marginalised and vulnerable communities. A niche and developing area of environmental jurisprudence, it relies heavily on recognising and channelising the similarities between women and the environment, and to mould the former to be an active advocate for the latter. 

Ecofeminism and Women

In accordance with the Social Construction narrative, adopting a retrospective view of sustainability and gender equality can allow one to trace the nexus between environmental protection and women. In a world led by the hegemonic aspirations of men, women were the vulnerable class, suffering social and economic inequities, and rampant gender-based violence at the hands of men. They were labelled as, and confined to the roles of mothers, homemakers, domestic helpers etc., which, fueled by the inherently patriarchal society, left them financially dependent in addition to being physically, socially and emotionally vulnerable. Their contribution towards households and society at large was given little to no importance, as their financial dependence was considered the only defining factor of their lives. Patriarchal practices through continuous undermining and belittling of abilities turned women into mere burdens, meant to support and suffer at the hands of men. 

The school of thought theorized that the environment had suffered similar inequities at the hand of the patriarchal capitalist. The exploitation and oppression manifested in different forms, but man’s greed led to the erosion of nature as well, leaving it vulnerable. Reports suggest that as of 2015 merely 48% of men in developed nations considered climate change to be of imminent concern, while close to 69% of their female counterparts were actively concerned about the same. As the population increased and mortality rates fell, man’s exigency for increased material belongings came at the cost of rampant deforestation, environmental pollution, poaching of animal species driving them to extinction, to name a few. The extent of man’s insatiable needs has therefore led to current day society standing at the brink of a complete breakdown of nature’s order.  

The narrative draws a parallel and argues that women are better advocates for nature’s plight, citing two reasons. First, both women and the environment, having suffered at the hands of the patriarchal society share their lived experiences, instilling a sense of compassion. Second, the school of thought proposes the idea that women, by virtue of their biological ability to bear and predominantly nurture life, develop a deeper understanding of the importance of sustaining and protecting nature.

Ecofeminism in the International Law Sphere

The Brundtland Report first coined the term ‘sustainable development’, which the world unanimously adopted, as it accepted the view that life of the Global North is not extendable to the rest of the world. It is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It cemented the idea that priority of opportunity must be given to developing nations to further progress while balancing it with sustainable ecological practices. Ecofeminists, as they were referred to by Gro Harlem Brundtland, however, argue that even the idea of sustainable development so proposed is androcentric, and only aims to propagate the interests of the cis-gendered male elite. 

As the ideas of the ‘development model’ garnered attention and support, ‘sustainable’ practices as propagated by the developed nations of the global west were adopted, rather imposed upon developing countries. ‘Maldevelopment’, as it should be rightly called, rested on the assumption that there existed only one path for sustainability which was a blanket acceptance of technological practices of the west, which aimed to cut carbon footprint by replacing and reducing production, and by choosing ‘efficient’ technology over manual labor.

The main critique of sustainable development according to ecofeminists is how heavily it relies on and emphasizes sustained economic growth. Through various international instruments and treaties, such as the Kyoto Protocol, the idea that even for a sustained perspective towards the environment, nation-states need to focus on economic growth was reiterated, eventually straying from the initial intent of ecological longevity. Further, there was a drastic shift in thought process, as the west imposed and projected that economic growth was directly proportional to technological advancements. 

However, what this concept of sustainability did not factor in was that the nations they wished to develop were primarily agrarian societies. Ecofeminists have held that for vulnerable groups like those of women and children, there exist a handful of industries which provide relatively safer employment, the leading example being agriculture. As machines replaced labor, it was the women and the children who found themselves at the receiving ends of social and economic inequities, which were a direct result of their unemployment. Sustainable Development, as propagated and proposed through Agenda 21, was corrupted by man’s greed, once again leaving it for women to bear the cost while allowing the men to hoard power and wealth. Sustainable development, thus, failed to question the core presumptions of the ‘dominant development model’.

It was only in 1995, at the 4th United Nations Conference in Beijing that ‘women and environment’ were identified and given due importance as stakeholders in the contemporary world. International treaties on the lines of the Johannesburg Declaration imbibed gender issues as integral parts of all facets of Agenda 21, encouraging nation-states to first identify, then categorize and eventually resolve issues relating to women and the environment. The decades since have seen slow but consistent progress with ‘gender mainstreaming’ being introduced in 3rd and 4th world countries. Being formalized through the Treaty of Amsterdam in the European Union, gender mainstreaming’s objective was to analyze the inequities between men and women at the nascent stage of policy formation, to ensure that the policies so formed further gender equality and aid with social restructuring. 

On paper, therefore, women and the environment were given a front row to the modern era of sustainable development, however, the main concern of ecofeminism remained unresolved. Sustainable development is still correlated heavily, if not entirely, with economic growth, which fuels capitalism. Capitalism, as propounded by Karl Marx described how the society was segregated into haves and have nots, and how the system allows the former to grow their riches, while the latter battles poverty. Ecofeminists uphold Marxist ideologies as they assert that a capitalist society will invariably lead to the exploitation of marginalized communities, and to truly sustain the environment, society needs to focus on equitable distribution of wealth and power. 

However, all is not lost. Looking at the Indian setup itself, we find examples of women acting as ecofeminists, unaware that their actions often align them with a global movement. The Chipko movement of 1973 happened at the same time when the term ‘ecofeminist’ was coined. Women in the foothills of Uttarakhand hugged and refused to let go of trees, compelling the capitalists to eventually desert their dreams of clearing the land. Women’s resilience to save nature, risking their own lives was a testament to their profound attachment with nature, and ecofeminists today strive to channelize this very spirit. 

Future Approaches

The future of ecofeminism rests on an increased level of female literacy, acknowledgement and acceptance of women as intellectual resources, a subsequent increase in their participation in policy formation, and an active decision to dismantle systemic patriarchy. Only when women are empowered in such a way can they continue to develop their bond with the environment, thereby becoming better advocates for the environment, who would establish a better relationship between resources and their sustained use. 

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