Scholars have argued that women have an affinity with nature because both are subjected to domination; women by men and nature by culture. In such a conceptual framework, nature is equated with femininity and culture with masculinity. The proponents of this ideology contend that cultural artefacts have destroyed nature through modern technologies which are patriarchal in nature. The proposed synonymy between women and nature also comes from the power of procreation; in women through child bearing, and in nature through regeneration. In framing the argument thus, these scholars have brought ecology and feminist ideologies together, a strand of thinking called ecofeminism which emerged in the late 1970s. The term was first coined in 1974 by Françoise d’Eaubonne in France. In the Indian context, it is Vandana Shiva who has drawn attention to women’s marginalisation and ecological destruction under the historical and conceptual trajectory of development, which is largely guided by western models. Women’s direct and indirect dependencies on nature have lead to intricate theorising by ecofeminist scholars who see nature as feminine and culture as masculine. They see an important connection between the oppression of women and the oppression of nature and argue for women’s intrinsic affinity with nature.
Though ecofeminism has gained influential currency, it has its share of criticism as well. One of the strongest arguments against ecofeminism is that it essentialises women as one undifferentiated category while in reality women occupy multiple locations. Women belong to different caste, class, region and ethnicity and this in turn entails their differentiated interests in caring for or protecting nature. There are others who see the ‘affinity’ as an outcome of the traditional division of labour within the household that assigns women the primary responsibility of providing food for their families or alternatively taking care of survival needs.
It is true that women’s dependence on common property resources is disproportionately higher than that of men because they are the prime users of these resources. According to the National Sample Survey Office Report (2004), 41 per cent of all women in India indulge in free collection of fish and firewood including minor forest products; in the north eastern states this proportion is much higher (Table 1). In addition to time and effort spent, women cover immense distances for collection of water and free goods. In the Central Region of Malawi, fuelwood collection was almost entirely carried out by girls and women with men pitching in only in exceptional cases. What is noteworthy in this case is that households that tended to collect more frequently from places further away from home were not only large in size, but also had more women members (Brouwer et al. 1997).
Another example to show how the division of labour impacts the preferential environmental concerns involves Sri Lankan and Nepali women working on their husbands’ plots with similar water needs (in terms of adequate water supply for growing crops). They had a different opinion regarding water delivery than their husbands. While the Nepali male farmers were most concerned about enough water at the start of the rice season to soften the soil for land preparation – their prime responsibility; the women stressed on the importance of water availability during the entire season in order to suppress weed growth – since they were the ones to take care of weed control (Zwarteveen, 1997).
It is a foregone conclusion that any destruction of natural resources and common properties is likely to affect men and women differentially. And women would be the worst sufferers, particularly those in traditional subsistence and survival economies who are at the helm of household food security. Ecological destruction, through deforestation, development projects, water management projects, pollution and wrong land use practices, has not only displaced women from productive activities; natural resource depletion and environmental degradation has a direct consequence on women’s time, income, health and social support system. No wonder then that they often emerge as the more conscientious carer of nature.
That said, it does not necessarily mean that there is anything intrinsic or a ‘natural affinity’ in the women’s association with nature. Forging an organic connection between nature and women has an inadvertent outcome – some issues become women’s issues and are either sidelined in the planning process or are seen as the exclusive domain of women, without proper understanding of entrenched power asymmetries between men and women. A member of the Planning Commission, India had once commented that if men were responsible for domestic water management, all villages would have had water taps long ago!
If the natural habitat is damaged, forests and common lands disappear and water sources dry up, the implications are for the entire family and eventually for humanity as a whole, not for women alone even though their workload increases. If this is so, protection of nature and prevention of its destruction should be legitimately claimed and owned by the society at large rather than being the hallmark of women’ responsibility as some would like to argue.