Justice as Recognition: Why the Participation of Rural African Women in Environmental Decision-Making Matters

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In this post, Dr Synda Obaji discusses women’s participation in environmental decision-making in Africa from the viewpoint of environmental law and human rights law

Dr Synda Obaji

It has long been established that climate change will disproportionately affect vulnerable and poor populations, because they depend highly on natural resources but are incapable of dealing with climate variability. Recent studies have now also revealed that due to gender roles, access to resources and information, women are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than men. Since rural women are a major part of Africa’s poor, unemployed and socially disadvantaged, their participation in the making of environmental decisions is key.

The right to participate in decision-making is crucial to good governance and the empowerment of local people and communities.  It promotes equity, justice, and collaboration; ensuring that interested persons are instrumental in the planning of environmental activities and programmes. In advancing the people’s right to raise concerns, identify priorities, and determine matters that affect them, public participation is a manifestation of democratic principles.

Despite the importance of public participation however, there is a growing concern about the misrecognition of certain classes of people and their inability to participate in the making of decisions that affect them. This is manifested in the form of degradation and devaluation and results in the underestimation of the worth of affected persons.

The Issue

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), often referred to as the international bill of rights for women, entered into force over 40 years ago, and has been ratified by nearly all member states of the United Nations. CEDAW identifies the various forms of discrimination against women and girls and puts forward a comprehensive framework to end such discrimination. Although CEDAW has successfully fostered the adoption of laws on gender equality, domestic violence, anti-trafficking and inheritance rights, women all over the world have continued to fight for equality at home, in the workplace and in their communities. For rural African women, the situation is even more dire – many of them do not have a voice. This has meant that despite the existence of legislation, they have remained excluded from political participation.

Historically, rural African women have had no or unequal access to certain rights, opportunities, and privileges. Barriers to the full integration of the African women in political participation and decision-making are engendered by age-old customary laws and cultural practices which advance various forms of discrimination against women. The patriarchal social structure, prevalent in many parts of Africa for instance, has led to male dominance and control over women in political, social, economic, cultural, and financial spheres of life. Indeed, my earlier research on environmental justice in the environmental impact assessment process found that the patriarchal social structure in Nigeria denies women the opportunity to participate in the environmental impact assessment process. Patriarchy sustains practices of exclusion and marginalization, limiting the capacity of women to drive change in society.

Misrecognition: A Threat to Environmental Justice.

Misrecognition remains a matter of serious concern because it can lead to physical, moral, and mental harm. Misrecognition destroys the social and institutional status of people and contributes immensely to the limitations and distributional injustice that affected individuals suffer. In many parts of Africa, cultural and institutional processes apply uneven methods of distribution to different social groups, on the basis of gender. Women are not recognised as entitled to fully take part in social interaction or engage in social life with men, as equals, because of institutionalised cultural patterns that regard them as undeserving of respect and regard. This has far-reaching effects on the attainment of environmental justice. The misrecognition of women directly impacts on their rights to access environmental information, and by extension, their ability to seek justice where national environmental law is violated. Also, given that the three dimensions of environmental justice – distributive justice, procedural justice, and justice as recognition – are closely connected, where political and cultural institutions engender misrecognition, then participation in these institutions is also affected and inequity in the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens comes into play. We simply cannot speak of environmental justice in the face of gender inequality and discrimination.

The Way Forward

The United Nations has recognised gender equality as important to achieving a sustainable future in Goal 5 of its Sustainable Development Goals. Accordingly, Goal 5 seeks the full and effective participation of women at the various levels of decision-making as one of its targets. Participation in decision-making is necessary for the advancement of women and their involvement in the development process. It is not only key to gender equality, but also an important dimension of environmental justice. Therefore, to promote environmental justice, it is not enough to provide substantive rights in legal instruments alone. Law must also address issues of inequality which have the capacity to affect the enjoyment of these rights. A gender-responsive approach to developing environmental policy is vital. This will ensure that the unique experiences of women are taken into account.

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