For Sustainable Development, Women Are a Key Resource

Most of the world leaders that will make the final decisions at the end of this week's special session on the environment are wearing three-piece suits. But most of the people in the world who work directly with the earth are wearing saris, sarongs, and skirts.

"Who fetches the fresh water? Who washes the clothes? Who raises the children? Who deals with the day-to-day activities in the countryside? It's the women," says Jocelyn Dow, director of "Red Thread," a community-based program that works with women villagers to create environmentally sustainable economic growth projects throughout the South American nation of Guyana.

Ms. Dow is at the UN this week along with thousands of other women determined that their voices will be heard and incorporated into the final declaration.

"Without women's contribution in the decisionmaking, you get an overall plan for action where the main players are eliminated," says Bella Abzug, the outspoken former New York congresswoman who now heads the Women's Environment and Development Organization, a nonprofit group based in New York.

At the Earth Summit five years ago, the proposed UN declaration on the environment had scant references to women. But a caucus of women's organizations pushed for changes. In the end, it had 120 provisions affecting women added, along with a special chapter on women as a group.

"The statement recognized there has to be the full participation of women because they are indeed the managers of the environment and development," says Ms. Abzug. But recognition on paper hasn't necessarily translated into authority at the negotiating table. So this year, the caucus is back pushing its agenda.

The goals: to ensure that 1 percent of all development aid is targeted toward loans for rural women; that agricultural policies encourage sustainable domestic production; and that barriers to women's equal rights to access the world's natural resources be removed.

A tall order. But without it, Dow says, negative environmental trends will continue, jeopardizing not only the world's women and children, but its men, too.

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