Archive for the ‘Women’s Rights’ Category

In 2012 I was very fortunate to attend several prominent international conferences where population issues – including human rights, the environment, and the global economic reality – were discussed. These events were the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Rio+20 Earth Summit and the Montreal International Conference on Degrowth in the Americas.

iStock_000014852074XSmall Earth

My current work is writing on many issues related to population, especially rights and the environment. We live in a world with 7 billion people that is predicted to be between 8 to 10 billion by 2050.  And we face many pressing problems that need solutions grounded in fairness, equality, and respect for life.

After attending these conferences, along with other events, experiences, and research, I decided to write a report on inclusive, holistic approaches to covering this subject. The result is People’s Rights, Planet’s Rights: Holistic Approaches to a Sustainable Population. It recommends focusing on the following issues to create a path to a sustainable population:

  • Women’s Rights – providing voluntary family planning services to the 222 million women in developing countries who want access to family planning services but do not have access to contraceptives;
  • Youth Rights – providing comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education to the nearly 3 billion young adults under the age of 25;
  • Rights of Nature – recognizing the legal right of ecosystems to exist;
  • Rethinking the Economy – accepting that endless economic growth is unsustainable and more efficient global indicators of human and environmental well-being should be adopted.

While there has been much focus, and rightly so, of the need to empower women as the answer to stabilizing population numbers, I think that other issues are sometimes overlooked. One is recognizing the rights of youth to reproductive health and education. Another – the need to reassess our endless growth economy – isn’t often mentioned as a solution in conjunction with human rights. Lastly, the concept of rights of nature is barely mentioned at all.

This report is my attempt to bring these issues together as a way to craft policies to better our communities and our world. Certainly it could have a big impact on India, which is soon to have the world’s biggest population. Balancing human rights with nature’s rights would help tigers and other endangered species. Creating local, sustainable economies with quality livelihoods would help people and the environment.

The same applies for the U.S. and developed countries. The situations might be slightly different, but in the end, they are not really so different; after all, we all share the same planet.

In my opinion, implementing policies based on the points above are worth undertaking and we have nothing to lose by doing so. It just might make the world a better place, which is what most of us want.


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Mention India and many contradictory images are often conjured up – poverty and Rajput castles, rich and exotic foods and begging mothers and children, the Himalayan mountains and Rajasthani deserts.

But there is no contradiction on the importance of the Indian monsoon. Indian agriculture and much of Indian culture are intertwined with the seasonal rains. And the future outlook on the reliability of monsoons does not look promising.

The monsoon months of June to September bring three-quarters of India’s annual rainfall. Yet alarmingly, more experts are predicting that due to climate change, the coming decades will bring erratic monsoon seasons in South Asia. This is bad news for Indian farmers, especially rural farmer communities. It is also bad news for food and water security in a country destined to be the world’s most populous by 2030.

A study in the journal Environmental Research Letters from researchers at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany found that the monsoons are likely to be 40-70 percent below normal levels and fail more often over the next two centuries. And between 2150 and 2200, the study predicts the monsoons could fail every 5 years.

Specifically, the study’s authors found that rising temperatures and a change in strength of a Pacific Ocean circulation pattern known as the Pacific Walker circulation in spring could cause more frequent and severe changes in monsoon rains.

In 2009 monsoon rains were 22 percent below average and Indians faced widespread drought. The country had to import large amounts of sugar, pushing global prices to 30-year highs.

India is a predominantly rural country, with over 600 million of its 1.2 billion citizens relying directly on agriculture. Nearly two-thirds of Indian fields are fed only by rain.

Krishna Kumar Kanikicharla, a scientist with the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, told the Yale University blog Environment360 that in a country where more than half of the population works in agriculture, “Livelihoods, water security, and energy security are all tied to volume and timely arrival of monsoon season.”

Women will feel the brunt of changes to the monsoon the most. In India, nearly eighty percent of women work in agriculture (mainly as smallholder, rural farmers) and will have to cope with droughts, floods, and erratic rains.

Adding to the water scarcity concern is the status of aquifers, a heavily relied upon source of water in India that is at risk. The groundwater is being pumped primarily for irrigating agricultural lands and as a source of drinking water; aquifers are being depleted faster than can be replenished by nature.

The past 200 years of ever increasing reliance on fossil fuels is altering the climate in ways yet unknown. The pattern is not likely to change unless the world commits to renewable, alternative energy sources and less carbon intensive solutions. So much already exists and only needs the will of governments to push new energy policies forward.

The time to act is now. The International Energy Agency just issued its annual World Energy Outlook 2012 report that states the world is failing to move towards a more sustainable path for energy, as it continues its addiction to fossil fuels in the face of climate change and growing water scarcity.

There are organizations in India working to empower communities – especially women – via small-scale and organic farming methods, as well as traditional measures to cope with droughts. One example is the Green Foundation, a grassroots organization that works to empower south Indian women to build resilient communities in the face of climate change and sustain rural livelihoods without damaging the ecosystem.

Another example is GRAVIS, based in the state of Rajasthan. The organization promotes sustainable rural development via capacity building, community and women’s empowerment, social justice, and protecting the environment. GRAVIS empowers rural desert communities via a traditional source of water storage, called taankas.

The consequences for continuing business as usual are great. In 2012 the monsoon came late, threatening the livelihoods of millions of people. Imagine if it doesn’t come at all. The effects of an erratic monsoon season would be felt beyond India of course, from creating climate refugees to a decline in tea production to threatened global security. Empowering communities and implementing local efforts are a key part of the solution. The overall solution though, is reducing global fossil fuel usage and emissions, which is the challenge facing the whole world.

[Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/friskodude/1177241/]

Original posted at 6degreesofpopulation.org


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Women, Food Security and Climate Change Training Program (photo: WEA)

The 101st International Women’s Day is March 8th.  Despite often hearing about existing obstacles to women’s well-being, there is much to celebrate this year.

Climate change, of course, is an enormous threat to just about every topic one could name.  In India, though, people are taking a holistic approach to the problem, including tapping into traditional knowledge, especially that of women.

I’ve written before on the work of the Women’s Earth Alliance(WEA) and its initiative to improve livelihoods and food security of small and vulnerable women farmers.  WEA works with a local Indian environmental organization, Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group, helping women farmers start or strengthen organic farming practices and diversify their food production.  And just as importantly, they connect women farmers, who share best practices with one another and start campaigns to create change in their communities.

According to WEA, the women they are working with are experiencing much success:

  • Soma and Thumpa in West Bengal have guided women farmers to set up 20 nutrition gardens, as well as install improved cooking stoves that reduce carbon emissions;
  • Manju Devi in Bihar has continued her training on organic farming practices and is encouraging others to plant multi-purpose indigenous trees. “My goal is to see women stand on their own feet and improve their self-reliance,” says Manju who set up her own organic kitchen garden as a demonstration site;
  • Kusum Lata in Uttar Pradesh has worked to ensure that rural women have job cards registered under their names. This enables them to get fair wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that provides 100 days of employment to rural households willing to do public work-related work, including water conservation and reforestation.

Compare this to a recent report by the development NGO Action Aid and the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, that found that more than 80 percent of smaller farmers – who contribute to half of India’s crop production – will be affected by climate change.  One farmer quoted in the report said that “The pattern of rainfall has changed.  It is so scattered that at times it rains but fields remain dry.”

And just last week Indian researchers reported that India’s monsoonal rains are becoming less frequent and more intense.

I heard similar stories from women farmers with whom I met in India a few years back. All over the world we are seeing how changing precipitation patterns are affecting water and food security.    That’s why it’s more important than ever to empower women.

I also saw this news article by Aditi Kapoor, writing on how “Innovative measures by women farmers across India are helping several poor families adapt better to climate change and keep hunger at bay.”  Kapoor interviewed a woman farmer from Uttar Pradesh, who said “Earlier, we could not produce enough food for a year because our village would get water-logged by the flood waters. Now, using early maturing paddy varieties and organic manure to revive soil fertility, we can at least eat for all 12 months from the same piece of land.”

What is needed in India and around the world, in terms of agriculture, is support for seed and grain banks, ecological farming training, appropriate technology, education, and economic empowerment for Indian women and farmers.  This will enable them to improve their food and economic security, preserve the environment and traditional knowledge, build political will, and better their lives.

It sounds to me like we have lots to celebrate this year!

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Recently I had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Prakash Tyagi, a medical doctor and director of Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (GRAVIS), a rural empowerment organization based in the state of Rajasthan, India.  Dr. Tyagi was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, courtesy of the International Development Exchange (IDEX).

The mission of GRAVIS, grounded in Gandhian philosophy, is to promote sustainable rural development via capacity building, community and women’s empowerment, social justice, and protecting the environment.  I am familiar with the work of GRAVIS, having written previously on how the organization empowers rural communities through employing traditional knowledge of taankas, a water storage system.

GRAVIS works in the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan.  It is the world’s most densely populated desert ecosystem, with 23 million people.  Life is tough, with unpredictable rainfall, environmental degradation, climatic extremes, resource scarcity, few health clinics, and oppressive social standards for women.  GRAVIS incorporates a holistic approach, focusing on water security, food security, health, and education, and reaches approximately 1 million people.

Dr. Tyagi talked about how GRAVIS works to overcome the difficulties facing women in the Thar Desert by making them equal partners.  They are guided by the idea of “sitting on one carpet”, meaning equal voice/equal rights for men and women.  Much of this work is done through Self-Help Groups, which aid women in life skills and economic self-reliance.  Projects include support for seed banks, micro-credit lending, and nutrition.

Overall, GRAVIS takes a life-cycle approach to meeting the needs of girls and mothers, and promotes leadership development, health education, maternal health, and girls education. Currently, the organization has set up 90 primary schools to help increase girl enrollment.

We discussed family planning, a sensitive issue in rural areas.  GRAVIS has put much effort toward prevention, capacity building, and the training of village health workers.  I asked Dr. Tyagi about the “mother-in-law” effect, as this particular family member has culturally had much influence on births in India (with a preference for grandsons). Though still an obstacle, Dr. Tyagi said they were slowly changing deep-rooted beliefs, especially by involving men in family planning, and by improving literacy.  GRAVIS states on their website that village health workers, who come from rural areas, have the trust of their respective communities, which enables them to overcome some of the village skepticism regarding modern medicine and health practices.

Another cultural barrier to overcome is that of child marriage, a still-too-common practice in Rajasthan, and one rooted in social poverty. Official government figures show the percentage of girls getting married before the age of eighteen is 68% in Rajasthan.  Dr. Tyagi said that their Self-Help Groups work in villages to change attitudes and beliefs. GRAVIS has been able to reduce rates of child marriage by empowering women, educating girls, and improving economic opportunities.

Lastly, our discussion touched upon overcoming desertification, overgrazing, erosion, and other environmental problems.  GRAVIS works with communities through locally-based organizations to create community forests and pastures.  The forests – called orans – are considered sacred, dedicated to a local god or goddess and protected by ancient laws in each community. According to the social entrepreneurial group Ashoka, the land is sacred because it provides villages with grazing land and pasture for livestock, produce and medicinal plants such as berries, roots and herbs, and also fuel, timber and water.  Traditionally, orans allowed for equal access of all people to resources.  GRAVIS is working with communities to protect more orans in the Thar Desert region.

The short time I spent with Dr. Tyagi gave me hope and inspiration that by taking a holistic, traditional, and empowerment-based approach to the critical issues facing not only Rajasthan, but also much of the world, we can create positive change.

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Women Farmers Training 2011 (photo: WEA)

Nearly eighty percent of Indian women work in agriculture, and less than seven percent of have land tenure.

Small farmers livelihoods in India are threatened by industrial agriculture, which degrades the environment and negatively impacts the role of women in agriculture. Women have traditionally been seed keepers who preserve the biological diversity and health of crops.

The good news is that many people are working to protect and improve the lives of women farmers. I attended a talk recently given by Rucha Chitnis of the Women’s Earth Alliance (WEA) on the “Women, Food Security and Climate Change Training” Program, which works to connect rural women farmers and help them overcome the many challenges they face, with climate change and food security at the top of the list. This program focuses on ecological farming, rights education, traditional knowledge, just livelihoods, and adapting to climate change.

WEA does incredible work, and this program promotes the idea that women are not victims but instead are the ones holding down the fort and finding ways to improve lives. Through peer-to-peer/farmer-to-farmer exchanges, women come together around empowerment, self-reliance, and to learn from one another.

One training participant, Manju Devi, is a single mother of three from Bihar who has trained over 144 women in five villages in organic farming and seed saving. She has also set up her own organic kitchen garden site, which she uses for demonstrations.

Another Indian woman farmer’s success story was that of Ram Ratti. A decade ago she was fortunate enough to receive training from the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Group (and now WEA’s partner in the Women, Food Security and Climate Change program) in sustainable farming practices. Today she grows over 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables and has trained 200 women in organic agriculture and seed saving. Ninety of these women are now smallholder organic farmers with a diverse group of crops cultivated from local seed varieties.

Both of these women understand that sharing women’s knowledge is an integral part of food security, especially in the face of climate change. And they are making use of women’s intimate knowledge of farming, natural pesticides, and medicine. In Rucha’s words, these “women are reclaiming “green” from the green revolution.”

Ultimately, it is women who are the primary caretakers of natural resources. By empowering them with property rights, economic opportunities, and decision-making authority our environment and communities will be better off. I know some of the women farmers I met in Maharashtra a couple of years ago talked about these same things.

The theme of the presentation and of the women’s training revolved around unity, sharing and empowerment. These are concepts that we should all use to guide our lives in light of the challenges facing the planet.

Countries all over the world can raise women’s status by educating girls and by improving women’s access to credit, land, jobs, and training. This is exactly what WEA’s India program is doing, but taking it a step further by bringing women together to learn from each other. And they are having great success.

Watch here WEA’s short video on the training, and get ready to be inspired!

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Hamari Devrani is an Indian soap opera (photo: zimbio.com)

The day after I finished reading a National Geographic article on Brazil’s dramatic decrease in the country’s fertility rate, I came across something just as surprising on India.  The Financial Times recently headlined “India sees rise in one-child families.”   A decline in the number of children in Brazil is perhaps unexpected, but one-child families in India, land of 1.2 billion and growing, is remarkable.

According to a study by a visiting professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, eight percent of Indian households, mostly urban and educated, are choosing to have only one child.  The research shows that competition for jobs in a fast-growth economy was the greatest determinant of the single child trend in India. That, and more women are delaying marriage.

As for Brazil, it is a nation of devout Roman Catholics, with a strong machismo attitude across the land.  And still, the number of children dropped – from 5.3 in 1970 to the national average of 1.9 in 2011 (which, by the way, is lower than the U.S., which stands at 2 children per woman).  India too, has entrenched cultural beliefs, yet today it has a fertility rate of 2.6.

What factors are causing this?  Economic growth and consumerism, and in India’s case a desire by parents to attain good, white collar jobs for their kids. Of course the poorer the region, the higher the birth rate.  In Bihar, a very poor state which borders Nepal, the rate is 3.9.

India’s health minister recently listed measures that have contributed to the lowering of the fertility rate, including improving literacy levels, empowerment of women, discouraging adolescent marriages, delaying child birth, and involving village level community health workers in promoting family planning. I saw actions of some community groups first-hand and can attest that there are some very dedicated groups working on this.

All this makes sense, but there are other influencing factors at play.

Interestingly enough, one reason for the decline in Brazilian families is access to electricity and television.  In particular, telenovelas, or soap operas that showcase small families and educated, professional/white-collar working women.  These shows are extremely popular with women and men of all economic classes.  Along with smaller families, the shows also reflect lifestyles that people want to achieve.  If you have a lot of kids, you probably won’t have that nice car, home, college education, etc.

I’m really curious if Indian soap operas are similar.  One thing about Indian families is that the mother-in-law carries a lot of weight regarding family decisions.  And in a male-dominated society, mothers-in-law want sons. Perhaps that is changing as more Indians rise to “middle-class” status.  And perhaps tv will reflect that, or already does.

Both cases underscore the impact of education on family planning and reproductive health.  When families are given information to make informed choices, not to mention access to health care, it can lead to better lives.  But watching a soap opera or two doesn’t hurt.

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photo credit: showmeindia.com

We need to hear more about the numerous heroes and heroines in our midst, along with successful grassroots projects, and less about partisan politics and the like.

This week I heard a presentation by Rajasvini Bhansali, or “Vini,” an amazing woman who heads up the International Development Exchange (IDEX) and is one of those people we should be hearing about.

IDEX works with local organizations to overcome poverty. Vini combines incredible intellect with warmth and an engaging personality and uses it for positive action.  I wish our media reported on more people like her.

Vini’s talk was called “India Shining” and it covered mainly positive initiatives on the ground in India.  One of her stories was about water and women in Rajasthan.  If you’ve ever been to that state, you know how dry it is.  It’s a beautiful but very arid region that is home to many rural and desert communities. According to IDEX, desert families spend upwards of 70% of their income on water.

Not surprisingly, water, and water management, is a huge issue.  This is especially so for women, who spend much of their time walking great distances to collect water for their families.  Often it is young girls tasked with this burden.  Fetching water is a priority that is put before school, so few girls are able to gain an education. As water becomes scarcer, the negative impact on women becomes greater.

GRAVIS, a local IDEX grantee with field offices in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, strives to create self-reliant villages.  One such initiative is helping implement a traditional way of harvesting and storing rain water to help Rajasthani communities.  Using taankas, or underground water storage tanks, GRAVIS helped 20 villages construct these tanks that resulted in vastly improved water security during times of drought.  At the same time, it eased the water burden on women.

photo credit: gravis.org.in

A taanka reportedly costs about $250, and the tanks capture, filter, and store rainwater normally collected from rooftops.  Each taanka holds 20,000 liters of water. Once a tank is filled, it can last a family for 5-6 months. Freed from the need to collect water, more girls are able to attend school.  A win-win for the family and community.

Vini talked about how the most durable solutions to poverty come from the ground up.  Not only that, but they come from resurrecting past, even ancient, traditions.  Technology can be a saving grace for our societies, but tapping into knowledge and nature could even be better.

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