It’s time to “green” our legislatures with women politicians
As world leaders continue to convene global symposiums, summits and talks to determine how to address increasing environmental challenges, they may be overlooking one fundamental solution that could turn talks to action; elect more women to political offices internationally.
- Women represent 51% of the population and only 19% of all members of parliament on average internationally. What would happen if more women were in office? We may not be able to prove the outcome until all governing structures are inclusive, but we can study the impact women have on current legislatures, as well as examine the role women politicians play in advancing issues that address climate change and the state of the environment in countries that have ensured opportunities for women’s participation into their political systems and constitutions.
Although participants of the first Earth Summit in 1992 recognized that “women have a vital role in environmental management and development (Principle 20),” over the past twenty years systems of governance and decision making bodies have been dominated primarily by male leaders. Considering that women bear the greatest burden of the consequences associated with climate change, deforestation, natural disaster and rapid changes in the environment, policy makers have been missing a critical voice in the perspectives of women.
- Research by credible sources including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) show that “equity in power distribution, broadly defined, is positively associated with better environmental outcomes, including better access to water, less land degradation and fewer deaths due to indoor and outdoor air pollution and dirty water.”
Even in countries where women are severely underrepresented in politics, including in the United States, where only 17% of national elected leaders are women, there is evidence to show that regardless of party affiliation, female leaders are more likely to support pro-environmental policy. According to the League of Conservation Voter’s National Environmental Scorecard data compiled from 1970-2010, women members of Congress (in both the House of Representatives and Senate) were more likely than their male colleagues to support issues related to land conservation, global warming, energy, and environmental health and safety. A subsequent analysis of the voting records of Members of Congress from 2001-2010 by Rachel’s Network determined that women members of the US House of Representatives were 48% more likely than male members to support environmental bills. Electing more women to office is important to advancing policies that protect mother earth, and institutional changes can also be tremendous agents for positive change.
To understand how gender inclusive political systems, and national constitutions can have an immediate and long-term impact, we can examine countries like Rwanda that have reinvented themselves using institutions that foster women’s engagement in decision making. In the post-genocide era, Rwanda decided that “at least 30% of posts in decision-making organs [Article 9, Section 4] “ should be occupied by women and embedded the amendment into their Constitution. In 1994, there were only 8 women (11.4%) in parliament; today, the country has the world’s highest proportion of women representatives in the lower house at 56.3%, and both the environmental and economic outlooks in the country have improved dramatically. Whether through simple initiatives like banning plastic bags or more significant changes including the implementation of the National Forest Policy, that if followed as it has been to date will help Rwanda return to 30% forest coverage of all land, Rwanda has been set the precedent for how sustainable development policies can be integrated into national policy.
Recent changes to the Kenyan constitution also exemplify how incorporating environmental protection and gender inclusivity into national political frameworks can bring more diverse issues and perspectives to the table. Although human rights activists and women leaders had been fighting for a new constitution in Kenya for nearly 40 years, the breaking point came following the 2007 elections when nearly 1000 people lost their lives to post-election violence. After many rounds of deliberation, the new constitution was ratified by 67% of the electorate during a nationwide vote; some people contribute the success of the bill to the work of women’s advocates who rallied their sisters out to the polls to support wide sweeping reforms to governance, landownership, citizenship, and reproductive rights in Kenya. Among the greatest achievements of the new constitution was the requirement that makes elective public bodies illegal if there is not 1/3rd representation of a gender, as well as the elimination of gender discrimination in determination of land rights and inheritance. Kenya also became only the second country in the world (behind Ecuador in 2008) to embed “rights of nature” into their constitution. Rights of nature hold the state responsible for conservation and sustainable development of nature, the protection of at least 10% of land as tree cover, and the responsibility to protect and monitor human impact on the environment (Article 69), as well as give every person the “right to a clean and healthy environment (Article 42)”. If my unscientific documentation of ten women running for office in 2012 through the Her Story Wins project is any indicator of the type of leaders that could be occupying the Kenyan parliament in the near future, the country will not only uphold the promises made to the environment in the constitution but also advance forward with initiatives that will bring about environmental and economic prosperity.
By enabling more women to participate in democratic processes—whether by voting, being involved in government roles, or serving in political office, families, communities and nations reap the benefits. I encourage the leaders at Rio+20 to take the time to reevaluate their strategies for achieving political and policy victories and invest in tools that will bring about systematic changes for ensuring environmental justice and a sustainable future for tomorrow.
 UNDP Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All. 2011. hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2011/.