Original tree huggers
How well does Scotland’s environment movement reflect the role of women?
There is a proud link between women and the environment movement.
It was a group of women from poor, rural communities across Northern India that sparked the Chipko movement in the 1970s when they wrapped themselves around the trees near their villages in protest at deforestation.
Their actions coined the phrase ‘tree-hugger’ embodying the kind of non-violent protest that still lives on among environmental campaigners today.
Now, as the focus turns to the impact climate change is already having on poorer areas across the world through severe drought or floods, for organisations like Oxfam which are involved in projects to bring about climate justice, it is often the role of women in those affected communities which is of increasing importance.
But what of the environmental movement back home? Since many campaign groups now see the environment as much as about social justice as it is about conservation of our surroundings, they have had to reflect carefully on the gender balance of their organisations.
At Friends of the Earth Scotland, attention to the issue of equality is already enshrined into its constitution.
The group’s umbrella organisation, FOE International, lists its aims as bringing about economic, social, gender and environmental justice.
Of the roughly 3,000-strong membership in Scotland, about 53 per cent are women – broadly matching the balance of the general population.
Head of campaigns, Mary Church, said this gender split was echoed among its activists – who may not necessarily be paid-up members of Friends of the Earth – and of the nine branches across Scotland, four have women as conveners.
She added: “Looking at Friends of the Earth International at the moment it’s very dominated by women, the women far outnumber men on the executive committee and striving for gender equality is incorporated into all of the campaigns and structures – it is a key theme in what Friends of the Earth stand for and do – it is enshrined in the constitution and gender and regional diversity is one of the considerations member groups have to bear in mind when they are making elections to the executive committee.”
But while the membership may be balanced, have women got a sufficient voice? Church says they do and adds the four female Scottish branch conveners for Inverness and Ross, Glasgow, Dumfries and Moray are “prominent in their own right.”
The number of women members for FOE Scotland’s board does not reflect the same gender balance, with just four women and nine men but Church says this is still better representation than other boards elsewhere.
In many ways, the environment sector suffers the same problems as elsewhere in attracting women to senior positions.
Church adds: “It’s more about being open and participative for everybody – not just men and women but for a diversity of voices to be involved in decision making and public life.
“In order to inspire people to have the confidence to speak out and contribute, there needs to be a spread of those voices already there, already speaking, so it is very slow progress – you have to have the brave pioneers in whatever area that is underrepresented to be bold enough to stick their necks out and go into the white male-dominated situation.”
The Green Party, which has protection of the environment as one of its core aims, as well as a wider mandate of social justice, has tried to tackle the gender imbalance, particularly at a political level.
It supports affirmative action to ensure an even gender split with a general rule that 40 per cent of candidates must be women and a 50/50 split on winnable seats.
Lothians MSP Alison Johnstone, who joined the party in 1999, said: “These policies have been introduced during my time in the party, there was a realisation that when it came to elections we usually had several very enthusiastic male volunteers for a candidacy but it could be more challenging to encourage women to put themselves forward.
“Partly it’s because women don’t see so many other women in politics, so the more women you have, the more it’s seen as a normal thing for a woman to do.”
She adds that it can be a challenge for women wishing to participate more in activities to attend predominantly evening meetings.
“Women are still the primary carers and often it’s really challenging – how many party meetings or community council meetings or any that you might want to attend – they are bang in the middle of that bath time, bed time, busy period.”
Johnstone challenges the idea that rules are not needed because it should just be down to picking the best candidates – a claim that was made to her only recently by an SNP MSP.
She said: “If only one in four of their MSPs are women does that mean the men in their party are just far more able than women? Frankly, I think that is a preposterous suggestion and I think there are other reasons why they are not succeeding in attracting women. We all know they have some very able women MSPs who are every bit as able as their male counterparts.
“Given that women are not a minority of the population, I don’t think that argument stands up.”
But do women have a specific role to play in protecting the environment?
The Women’s Environmental Network started in the 1990s, initially because of the increasing incidences of breast cancer in women, with the lifetime risk of a diagnosis having dropped dramatically from one in more than 22, down to one in 12 – it is now one in seven.
Groups of women mapped out where cases of breast cancer were occurring and what was believed to be causing it and raised concerns about the effects of toxins produced from post-war industrialisation and the rise of the nuclear industry – the campaign then began to include other health impacts.
In 2007 it lodged a petition with the Scottish Government calling for an investigation of links between exposure to toxins in the environment and the workplace and rising incidences of cancers and other chronic illnesses – and the organisation’s efforts have also included fears over coal bed methane, including the recent public inquiry into Dart Energy’s plans for Airth near Falkirk.
Many of the women involved in the organisation are cancer survivors and it still has that concern over health and wellbeing at its heart.
Morag Parnell, a former GP who co-founded WEN in Scotland in 2004, said the network was not a formal organisation but allowed women to contribute “what they can, when they can.”
She added: “When they can is very important, it’s very difficult to get women together because there are so many demands on women’s time for having formal meetings.
“Most women now work, most of the women we know have jobs but they all have caring responsibilities as well.”
But she said it was important not to compartmentalise things into male or female issues.
“These are human rights issues across the board and we have to set it in the context of the kind of society we live in.”
But the modern environment movement is not just the grassroots organisations, particularly in Scotland, it has the ear of the business world as well.
The 2020 Climate Group was formed to bring together the private, public and third sectors to find solutions to issues surrounding the environment – not least how to tackle ambitious plans to reduce carbon emissions by 2020 and beyond.
Louise Macdonald, chief executive of charity Young Scot, is one of the vice chairs of the organisation, alongside Lady Susan Rice and Samantha Barber, with the main board also including other prominent women from across the spectrum in Scotland.
Macdonald became involved with the push for a more sustainable world through the WWF Scotland Natural Change Project.
Through this project, she said she had to explore what values were important to her.
“I don’t think they are gender-specific issues but when you go to explore those things, you are relatively quickly into social justice issues and the broader impact,” she said.
“Then it’s not much of a step to think about climate justice and how women are disproportionately affected by that for a whole range of reasons.
“There’s that huge global world view that certainly has a gender element, for me personally, my commitment to this was just having that opportunity to think about what mattered and realising how important and how central sustainability and working for a low carbon Scotland and beyond was to that.”
While gender issues have not been something discussed by the group specifically, she said these issues are intrinsic to much of the work that goes on.
She added: “Looking across my experience, which is relatively recent, I’ve met some amazing people of both genders and don’t think it’s struck me that there has been an imbalance.
“It’s not been something that I’ve walked into rooms – and you do tend to spot these things, where you walk in and there’s an all-male panel, for example.”
She added: “There are gender issues within the environment and the impacts of climate change. But in terms of the response to it, and collectively, how we can work together, it’s not been my experience that this has been imbalanced.”
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