At a glance:
Women, health and the environment

Women stand on the front line in the battle with environmental degradation. Their health depends on the health of the land, forests, air and water around them. As those in closest contact with the land and the natural world they are usually the first to suffer from its degradation.

Deforestation increases the amount of time women must spend in seeking both fuel and water: when the trees are felled water sources also dry up. In Gujarat, India, women now have to devote four or five hours a day to collecting fuelwood, whereas not long ago they only had to go out to get it every four or five days. Every day in South Africa alone, the country’s women walk the equivalent of going to the moon and back 16 times over to fetch water for their families. Both tasks cripple the health of the women who have to carry the heavy loads.

The water is often unsafe, killing more than 3 million people a year, mostly children. And pollution from the fuelwood and other biomass – which 2.5 billion people have to use because they lack modern forms of energy – disproportionately kills women and children, who spend most time in the home.

Women, who tend to carry more fat, are also more vulnerable to the toxic chemicals that build up in it, and so are their unborn babies. In countries as different as the United States and the Sudan increased neonatal deaths have been found among the children of women farmers exposed to pesticides. High levels of dioxins and other hazardous chemicals have been found in breast milk in a wide variety of countries, while women exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) around North America’s Great Lakes have given birth to children with delayed motor development and dramatically lower intelligence.

Yet women are often also at the forefront of the fights to conserve health and the environment. They have led the Chipko movement against the felling of forests in northern India and similarly are campaigning against chemical-intensive agriculture across the subcontinent. The soil in women’s plots in Ghana has been found to retain its fertility longer than the soil in men’s ones, while half of all the United Kingdom’s organic farmers are female, ten times the proportion in the country’s agriculture as a whole.

Geoffrey Lean

Maternal mortality by region, 1995

Per cent of births attended by skilled health staff, 1995-2000

Per cent of women giving birth by age 20, by level of education

Illiteracy and total fertility rates amongst women

Estimated proportion of HIV-positive adults (aged 15-49) who are women (end 2003) and young people (aged 15-24) living with HIV/AIDS (2000)

Per cent of population who must travel more than half an hour to fetch water (Selected African countries, 2001 or latest available data)

Deaths attributable to environmental causes, 2000

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Miles to go before we relax | Practical consensus | Power shift | Equally effective | People | Peace of mind, piece of land | The young ones | Fuelling change | At a glance: Women, health and the environment | Aishwarya Rai | Unprecedented opportunity | Books and products | Chemical inheritance | Toxic trespass | First empower | Citizen engagement | Adding feminine perspective | After all ‘nature’ is female... | A unique voice

Complementary issues:
Culture, values and the environment 1996
Chemicals 1997
Poverty, Health and the Environment 2001
World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002
Chemicals and the environment 2002
Energy 2003
Water, Sanitation, People 2004

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources
Population, waste and chemicals