It is no coincidence that one of the most successful grassroots environmental groups in the UK is run by women, specifically targeting issues that directly affect women. In fact, when it comes down to it, many of the environmental issues that affect all of us are those which the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) have been highlighting for years : persistent environmental toxins, hazardous waste, water pollution and the impact of synthetic substances on health, to name but a few.
In survey after survey, it is women rather than men who put concern for the natural environment, healthcare and the need for global peace above less social issues like finance, nationalism and trade. This can certainly be attributed to the deep nurturing relationship women have with their children; after all, care for humanity and the environment that sustains us underpins the care that children, and especially babies need.
Formed in 1988, WEN have continually grown in influence and membership, and are now seen (as part of an international network of Women and Environment groups) as a key ally for mobilising the support of activists in large scale campaigns. Certainly if an environmental campaign that directly affects women does not have the WEN seal of approval, it lacks considerable credibility in the UK, and it is notable that the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (with a membership of 211,000) have partnered with WEN to launch a Women’s Manifesto on Climate Change.
WEN’s Vision is simple : They seek “a world where women are aware of their ability to change the environment for the better and actively come together to do so.”
Green Seniors contacted Liz Sutton, WEN’s Communications Co-ordinator. We wanted to know more about the reason for WEN’s focus on women’s environmental issues, and where senior members of society fit in to their work.
Why does WEN consider environmental protection to be so important to the empowerment of women in society?
Because there is a nexus between gender inequalities, environmental inequalities and environmental degradation.
a) Predominant social roles (in all societies), mean women are exposed to environmental problems in particular ways. For instance, women's lives are more likely to be lived within the domestic sphere, exposing them to hazards in the home and local environment;
b) women are more likely to be living in poverty, which exposes them to more environmental problems. It's well documented that the poor suffer most from environmental degradation;
c) women are active at the grassroots and have many solutions to environmental problems but have less influence over environmental decisions because men still, by and large, hold the reins of power.
Our briefing, “Why Women and the Environment?” expands on these issues.
Women are empowered both by being involved in environmental action (being able to take control over their own environment or exposure to hazards, learning new skills and confidence from campaigning, learning about issues etc) and by living in a healthier environment as that removes one source of stress or inequality for them.
WEN seems to be a truly cradle-to-grave organisation. What part do seniors play in your campaign work?
Seniors are very active within our membership and in our local groups. Older women often have more time than women with young children or in full time work (though not always!), to be able to organise, campaign, agitate, bone up on issues, write letters, bring people together...whatever it takes to get things going. They also have the life experience to make and understand the connections between how we treat our environment and how women are treated.
Seniors - particularly those with a 'grow old disgracefully' attitude - are some of the feistiest campaigners around: less likely to be cowed or put off by sexist attitudes, attempts to put them down or undermine them, and able to take the long view. Grandmothers are prime educators within the family, passing on their wisdom to their children and grandchildren.
How do you see the role of seniors in society, particularly in environmental stewardship, developing over the next few years?
For all the reasons above, I see seniors playing a critical and growing role. The challenge ahead of us in the face of climate change, to reduce our consumption and our carbon dioxide emissions so we live sustainably within our means, is a huge one.
Older people who can remember the days of 'make do and mend', for instance, have invaluable skills and knowledge to pass on to younger generations who have grown up in the age of consumerism. This is not a questions of 'going back' to old ways, but learning from the past to develop new ways of living on this wonderful planet.
Crucial skills will be things like knowing how to grow your own food and compost waste, being able to cook from fresh ingredients, rather than ready meals, understanding about plants, seeds and the cycles of nature, knowing how to make your own entertainment, knowing how to clean your home, clothes and body without gallons of synthetic chemicals, knowing the value of fresh air and exercise, being able to recognise manipulative marketing for what it is... I could go on!
If you live in the UK and want to join WEN, go to their web site at www.wen.org.uk, or call +44 (0)20 7481 9004. If you live elsewhere and want to find a group relevant to you then this list of links may help you find what you want.