How to chart alternative pathways for women

A woman trains to be a solar engineer in India. A report by U.N. Women argues that gender equality should be integral to sustainable development. Photo by: Gaganjit Singh / U.N. Women / CC BY-NC-ND

How can economies be sustainable if the work that goes into “producing people” — healthy children and adults capable of learning and being productive — disproportionately falls on the shoulders of women and girls? What is real development when care work is compromised because the basic infrastructure — water, sanitation, health, energy — needed to implement it is not within reach? How can a food system be sustainable if large numbers of women and girls remain undernourished and do not have secure entitlements to nutritious food, and to the land where it can be grown?

We explore many such questions in U.N. Women’s 7th World Survey on the Role of Women in Development 2014: Gender Equality and Sustainable Development. To be officially launched on Oct. 20, the report argues that gender equality must be integral to sustainable development.

This survey comes at a critical juncture, when U.N. member states are moving toward defining the Sustainable Development Goals for the post-2015 era. There is ongoing debate on the inextricable links between climate change, water and food, and how they will be properly addressed. Meanwhile, the full integration of gender equality and women’s rights in the design and implementation of all other SDGs is a vital task on hand.

The report shows that the effects of unsustainable patterns of development reinforce gender inequality because women and girls are often disproportionately affected by economic, social and environmental shocks and stresses. It argues that around many issues — whether work and production, population and reproduction, food and agriculture, or water, sanitation and energy — dominant development pathways have often contributed to both unsustainability and gender inequality. Both are produced by development models that support particular types of underregulated market-led growth and the persistence of unequal power relations between women and men.

Women’s experiences are shaped by other, intersecting inequalities around poverty and wealth, ethnicity, age and place. However, policy responses that view women as a homogeneous group, as “closer to nature” or as “sustainability saviors” often reinforce stereotypes regarding women’s roles in relation to their communities and environments. Such responses can also add to women’s already heavy unpaid work burdens without conferring rights, resources and benefits.

But the reverse is also possible: Gender equality and sustainability can powerfully reinforce each other in alternative pathways.

When women have greater voice and participation in public administration, research shows public resources are more likely to be allocated toward investments in human development priorities, including child health, nutrition and access to employment. Women’s knowledge, agency and collective action are often central to charting alternatives, whether in managing local landscapes, adapting to climate change, producing and accessing food, or securing sustainable water, sanitation and energy services. We see this in examples from the Amazon Basin, where women are fully involved in forms of local forest governance that deliver both livelihood and conservation benefits; and in India, where networks of grass-roots women leaders are working to scale up capacity to reduce vulnerabilities to climate change in their communities.

The survey proposes three criteria to assess whether policies and investments to advance sustainable development are in line with gender equality and women’s human rights:

1. Compliance with human rights standards and the enhancement of women’s capabilities.

2. Attention to the unpaid care work of women and girls, especially those in poor and marginalized households and communities, so it is recognized, reduced and redistributed.

3. Full and equal participation by women and girls in the design and implementation of  sustainable development initiatives.

In the area of “green jobs,” for instance, the report calls for ensuring that green growth policies increase access for women to high-quality jobs in sustainable and low-carbon industries and sectors. It also proposes that the green economy and the care economy can be sustainably and beneficially merged by converting service and informal sector work, including paid care work, into sustainable livelihoods and decent employment through specific policies and regulations that are aligned with decent work standards.

The survey calls for investments in sustainable development that recognize women’s knowledge, agency and decision-making as fundamental. Such gender-equitable investments can improve resource productivity and efficiency and enhance ecosystem conservation and sustainable use. They can also build more sustainable, low-carbon and climate-resilient food, energy, water and sanitation and health systems that enhance everyone’s capabilities and reduce the burden of securing them, which largely falls on women and girls.

These policies and investments in gender-equitable sustainable development will not be effective without women’s full and equal participation and leadership in decision-making processes at all levels — from the household to local, national, regional and global levels. Equally important, the the report’s analytical findings and recommendations cannot be fulfilled without the equitable mobilization of international and domestic financial resources for sustainable development and gender equality.

An enabling environment must be fostered in developed and developing countries alike for financing green, pro-poor and gender-responsive investments, and for integrating gender equality and women’s rights throughout the proposed sustainable development goals and their implementation.

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About the authors

  • Melissa leach

    Melissa Leach

    Melissa Leach is director of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. As an IDS fellow, she founded and directed the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability Center from 2006 to 2014. A geographer and social anthropologist, her research has integrated social science with science policy and natural sciences across gender, environmental, political ecology, agricultural, health and technology approaches and issues. Leach is co-chair of the Science Committee of Future Earth.
  • Shahrashoub razavi

    Shahrashoub Razavi

    Shahrashoub Razavi is the head of U.N. Women's Research and Data Section. She specializes in the gender dimensions of development, with a particular focus on livelihoods, agrarian issues, social policy and care dynamics. Before joining UN Women, Shahra led the Gender and Development Program at the U.N. Research Institute for Social Development.