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Mainstream, VOL LX No 25, New Delhi, June 11, 2022

Gender, Environment & Development: Contributions of Indian Feminist Environmentalists | Shweta Prasad

Saturday 11 June 2022, by Shweta Prasad


The debate around the relationship between women, environment and development have come a long way. These debates started, expanded and evolved due to the significant contributions of many ‘feminist environmentalists’ belonging to different disciplines and even outside the realm of disciplinary boundaries. The present article is a tribute to the Indian feminist environmentalists, Vanadana Shiva and Bina Agrawal - one who is closely associated with the WED approach while the other is known for her critique of the same; for their contributions to the development of the discourse on the World Environment Day.

Development of the Discourse

In the international discourse, the gender, environment and development linkages, is a phenomenon of mid 1980s. Till 1960, these were regarded as separate realms with no intersecting impacts. In early 1960s, the Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962) brought to the fore the close connection between the environment and human beings and established beyond doubt that both affect and get affected by each other.

In 1970s, the development model that ignored the human perspective and focused on accumulation of wealth and technological progress only, started being questioned and the debates around the finite nature of natural resources started globally. This helped the issue of ‘sustainability’ getting recognized as far as the natural resources were concerned, however, it still had to take time to get accepted as an overriding principle for equity, equality and development covering socio-economic and political aspects as well. By mid 1980s, it was well established that environmental problems are the results of economic development model.

Around mid 1980s itself, the debate on environment and development saw the incorporation of gender component into it. In 1985, at the Nairobi World Conference, the NGOs’ Forum organized a parallel workshop that discussed the impact of environmental degradation on women and prepared a plan of action to meet the challenge. Further, the Nairobi Forward- Looking Strategy for the Advancement of Women officially recognized the gender-environment-development linkages though the efforts had started in 1984 itself with the United Nations Environment Programme setting up women’s advisory group on sustainable development to look into the environmental damage caused by developmental activities and its effect on women. Further, the Brundtland Commission report (1987) accepted the crucial role of women going beyond the prevailing notion of women as victims and accepted their role as possessors of knowledge who can play key role in environmental management. Agenda 21 [1] for Women’s Action further, called for their full participation.

The discourse has developed through various strands. One such strand associated with the early years of the discourse, was the women, environment and development (WED) perspective that was closely tied to a version of ecofeminism rooted in the Global South, especially in the works of Vanadana Shiva. A second strand came as a critique of WED perspective. Among others, one significant critique was provided by Bina Agrawal, who argued against the treatment of women as a homogenous category ignoring the actual material relationships of women with the environment and the power dynamics in the society that led to the development of the Gender-Environment-Development (GED) perspective.

Contributions of Shiva and Agrawal

Shiva, an Indian ecofeminist, has severely criticized Western reductionist science for its hegemonic, exclusionary epistemological position and argued in favour of an inclusive development model based on feminine principle. Shiva holds the Western development model responsible for various environmental problems specially in the Global South. Damage to land, agriculture, forest, water scarcity, poverty, hunger and many other problems are produced by this model of development. In support of her claims, Shiva presents several cases such as the Ethiopian famine, poverty of nomadic Afars and Gond in Bastar, and the Penanas of Sarawak in Malaysia (Keyoor & Subudhi 2019).

According to Shiva, Hinduism as a way of life is sustainable in nature. Here, feminine principles find expression in multiple dimensions of our existence. For example, nature also called Prakriti, is seen as an expression of Shakti- the force of creation and destruction, and is worshipped as Aditi- the source of prosperity. Forests are worshipped as Aranyani. Thus, we find a revered connection of women to environment in these countries that formed the basis of sustainability.

Shiva’s works have been major influence for WED researchers who believed in ‘vulnerability’ as well as ‘agency’ of women vis-à-vis environmental degradation. The struggles of Third World women to conserve environment and sustain life, the indigenous knowledge of these women that makes them ‘key actors’ have been beautifully highlighted in the works of Shiva.

The simple explanation for the relationship between women and environment given by the WED scholars and specifically Shiva, came under criticism by many. One Indian scholar who criticized Shiva, was Bina Agrawal. Agrawal on the one hand, supports and reiterates some of the arguments of Shiva and critiques some of the others.

Agrawal found the treatment of women by Shiva as a homogenous category as ‘essentialist’ and proposed for an intersectional analysis to be undertaken in studying the relationship of women and environment. She further, criticized Shiva for ignoring the social and historical contexts of the Third World countries in her analysis. Further, Shiva’s application of experiences of rural women from North-West India to the women of Third World countries, also invited criticism from Agrawal.

Critiquing Shiva, Agrawal proposed an alternative approach which she termed as Feminist Environmentalism. This approach was not something completely new rather it built and developed on elements of ecofeminism and evolved it further. Therefore, feminist environmentalism may be viewed as an extension of ecofeminism.

Agrawal stated that instead of treating women as a homogenous group, addressing actual material relationship of different groups of women with environment, is important. She viewed the connections between women and environment as constructed and structured by gender, caste, class and race. Agrawal also emphasized that power relations play important role and influence access to resources- an argument that laid down the foundation for Gender, Environment and Development (GED) approach. In her work ‘The Gender and Environment Debate: Lessons from India’, Agrawal states that a complex interplay of ideology, power and inequality is responsible for destruction of environment and loss of livelihoods.


Most initial works have plenty of scope for improvement, be it through criticisms or suggestions. The works of both the feminist environmentalists too, have been open to criticisms and thus, improvements. However, the contributions made by them to the discourse on gender, environment and development and the global acceptance of their contributions, is a matter of pride for us as Indians.

(Author: Shweta is Professor, Department of Sociology & Coordinator, Centre for Study of Social Exclusion & Inclusive Policy, BHU; Email: shweta1_bhu[at] / shweta1[at] )


1. Agrawal, Bina. 1992. The Gender and Environment Debate: Lessons from India. Feminist Studies , Vol. 18, No. 1
2. Shiva, V. 1989. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. Vandana Shiva. Zed Books, UK
3. Subudhi, Chittaranjan and K, Keyoor. 2019. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. Vandana Shiva. North Atlantic Books, 2016 (Reprint Edition), 244 pages. ISBN 978-1-62317-051-6. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 20(7)

[1Agenda 21, established at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or “Earth Summit”, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is the blueprint for sustainability in the 21st century- a commitment to sustainable development, which was agreed by many of the world’s governments. Agenda 21 addresses the development of societies and economies by focusing on the conservation and preservation of our environments and natural resources

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