Why gender equality and sustainable development are inextricably linked

by Melissa Leach, Director, Institute of Development Studies


As the world moves towards Sustainable Development Goals for the post-2015 era, there is emerging debate about how target-setting and implementation might integrate across the 17 goals proposed by the Open Working Group (OWG) so that the inextricable links between, say, climate change, water and food are properly addressed. Meanwhile, feminists and others rightly celebrate that goal 5 (‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’) survived the fraught, politicised OWG process.

But while retaining this as a ‘standalone’ goal is a victory that may guard against the perils of gender mainstreaming and marginalisation, arguably the integration of this with the implementation of the other SDGs is the most important task of all.

As a major United Nations report launched on 20th October argues, gender equality must be integral to sustainable development. This is the latest in the flagship series of five-yearly World Survey on the Role of Women in Economic Development reports, prepared by UN Women. I had the privilege, together with IDS and STEPS Centre colleagues Lyla Mehta and Preetha Prabhakaran, of leading its conceptualisation. This included authoring the background conceptual framing chapter laying out a ‘gendered pathways approach’, and working with international feminist scholars to shape contributions in areas where gender-sustainability intersections are biting hard.

Interlocked pathways

The report shows how the effects of unsustainable patterns of development often intensify gender inequalities, as women and girls are disproportionately affected by economic, social and environmental shocks and stresses.

It argues that around many issues – whether work and industrial 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 under-regulated market-led growth and the persistence of unequal power relations between women and men.

Such pathways rely on and reproduce gender inequalities, for instance by exploiting women’s labour and unpaid care work. They also produce environmental problems, as market actors seek and secure profit in ways that rely on the overexploitation of natural resources and the pollution of climates, land and oceans. As troubling intersections of unsustainability and gender inequality threaten or exceed planetary boundaries around climate change, biodiversity and pollution, so shocks, stresses and feedbacks may undermine gendered rights and capabilities even further.

Women from Lumanti (Thankot, Nepal) participate in awareness raising sessionBut the reverse is also possible: gender equality and sustainability can powerfully reinforce each other in alternative pathways. Women’s knowledge, agency and collective action are often central to these, 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 where women are fully involved in forms of local forest governance that deliver both livelihood and conservation benefits, as Bina Agarwal has traced, and where networks of grass-roots women leaders are working to scale up capacity to reduce vulnerabilities to climate change in their communities.

For pathways to be truly sustainable and advance gender equality and the rights and capabilities of women and girls, those whose lives and well-being are at stake must be involved in leading the way, through community groups, women’s organizations and other forms of collective action and engagement – supported by appropriate forms of investment and public services.

Women as ‘sustainability saviours’? Beyond stereotypes to a relational view

However, a simple ‘win-win’ relationship between gender equality and sustainability cannot be assumed. Indeed, a policy focus on women can risk casting them as ‘sustainability’ saviours’ in ways that stereotype their roles in relation to the family, the community and the environment. Such responses often add ‘environment’ to women’s already heavy unpaid care and work burdens, without conferring rights, resources and benefits. Power imbalances in gender relations shape whether women’s actions and work translate into the realization of their capabilities. And gender is always and everywhere cross-cut by other, intersecting power relations and inequalities, whether around class or ethnicity, age or place.

Hence analysis of interactions, tensions and trade-offs between different dimensions of gender relations and of sustainability is needed, along with attention to the structural foundations of gender discrimination and struggles against this. Recent policy attention to women and girls, from campaigning around the ‘girl effect’ to debates around the UK’s Girl Summit earlier this year, while laudable in many respects, often lacks this relational perspective. Instead, women and girls are treated as individual victims, saviours or development beneficiaries in ways that may entrench stereotypes, while ultimately failing to empower. If goal 5 is to do its vital integrative work for the SDGs and the post-2015 agenda, then attention to gendered power relations, in all their rich, intersecting variety, must remain centre stage.

Find out more

UN Women: World Survey on the Role of Women in Economic Development 2014

The STEPS Centre’s Pathways Approach: video, briefings and book



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