In the Body of the World: Women, Power and Sustainability
Let us pretend for a moment that we had but one hand to play toward realizing a more sustainable society. What then would we choose to do? There is no shortage of things that nag at our humanity to rectify: the loss of biodiversity, social & financial inequity, climate change, world hunger, an infrastructure dependent on finite resources--just to name a few. Yet if we had to channel our energies toward one solution in particular, it becomes difficult. Naturally we would want to pick an action which would have a large impact on everything around it. We would want to strike a nerve in the body of the world.
This is the type of heavy-handed thought experiment used to amuse oneself when alone at the Bistro during the wee hours of the morning on Valentine’s Day (hypothetically). By the final cup of coffee, the exact quantity of which will remain unstated here, many different options seem reasonable enough: protecting vulnerable habitats, incentivizing the development of carbon efficient technology, and so on. Yet perhaps the most unexpected of them is also the simplest:
That’s right--a girl!
Women have been an integral force in the environmental movement since its inception, and our leadership and perspectives will play a fundamental role in finding answers to some of the century’s most pressing challenges.
This discussion comes at an opportune time: Hiram College just elected its first female President in Dr. Lori Varlotta (Congrats Dr. Varlotta!). And on February 14th, several of our fellow students, both male and female, met to celebrate “V-Day,” a global open forum established in 1998 by feminist author Eve Ensler to discuss issues of gender, sexuality, poverty and discrimination. Those who attend each year describe it as a wonderful festival of self-empowerment.
So, beyond the candied hearts, stuffed bears and unrealistic expectations of romantic partners, at its base February 14th is about love. And it seems to me that in a society that delights in looking over the edge of ecological abyss, the love of women could move mountains.
The love that Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai had for the people of her native Kenya led her to organize the planting of 200 million trees, protecting the ecological integrity of the region and livelihoods of the subsistence communities who relied on it.
The love and dedication of activist Vandana Shiva helped give farmers in Rural India a voice against the exploitive powers of multinational corporations like Monsanto.
Malala Yousafzai’s love for education prompted her to speak out against the oppressive Taliban regime, demonstrating a strength of character few of us can scarcely imagine.
It is the defining principle of a concept known as the “girl effect.” The notion is simple: “When girls have access to education, legal protection, health care, training and job skills, they can thrive. And if they thrive, everyone around them thrives, too” (GlobalGiving). It is about leveraging the unique potential of women to address issues of poverty, public health and environmental degradation, both for themselves and their communities.
So how does this work in the real world? Well, here’s some numbers to wrap your head around:
- Closing the joblessness gap between girls and their male counterparts would yield a 1.2% increase in Gross Domestic Product in a single year. (1)
- When an educated girl earns income, she invests 90% of it back into her family.
- Worldwide, more than 60% of young people living with HIV are girls, a total of 3.2 million. When a girl in the developing world receives 7 years of education, she marries 4 years later and has 2.2 fewer children, decreasing the spread risk of HIV/AIDS.(2)
Yet how is it that so many of us still feel so powerless? In the immortal words of author Alice Walker, “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” That’s the reality of the 600 million adolescent girls living in poverty in the developing world. It is the reality of a popular culture which cuts up our bodies to be sold like so many other throw-away items upon the market of commodities. It is the reality of women all across the world who feel they need to shrink to be wanted, and that their only value is in the pleasure they bring under another’s hand. It lives when human beings become tools and subjects become objects.
Since the theme of our recent holiday is love, our first task is to love our bodies. Let us build a home for ourselves in our own skin and take back the agency of our persons. Because our bodies can do wonderful things:
- A woman’s hands, stained with dirt, can break ground to plant trees that will preserve the roots of a country.
- A woman’s voice, raised in protest, will advocate for the universal right to education from an inhumane regime.
- A woman’s feet can carry her across the land to diverse societies and ecosystems.
- A woman’s eyes can envision a sustainable, equitable future for her sons and daughters.
Ultimately we are not limited by scenarios like the one I introduced above, and it will take the continued efforts of diverse peoples to contend with the challenges of our generation. All of us, regardless of gender category, need to join together in realization of our power, for it is true that we have but one hand to play and it is the power of our humanity.
2) Moreno, Claudia. WHO multi-country study on women's health and domestic violence against women: initial results on prevalence, health outcomes and women's responses. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2005. Print.