NEW YORK (January 16, 2013)– In early January, WEDO drafted the below “Discussion Note” as input to the UN Thematic Consultation on Environmental Sustainability. It includes a reflection on key issues to shape the post-2015 development agenda but is by no means intended as an exhaustive list of gender equality, nor environment, issues to include. You can find the discussion on the World We Want site.

The three dimensions of sustainable development – social, economic and environmental – are necessarily intertwined, reflecting the complex interplay of issues at global, regional and local levels, and should be the basis of understanding for the post-2015 development framework. However, a major critique of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED/ Rio Earth Summit,) in 1992 was that “sustainable development” was, itself, a paradox: a sustainable path is impossible in the context of the current growth-driven economic development model – which continues to overshadow efforts and thwart progress on social justice and environmental sustainability issues. It is the reverse – a focus on equality and sustainability, as well as the realization of rights, as the UN Task Team’s report[2] proposes – that will be more effective and could improve the livelihoods and well-being of the global community.

In elaborating a post-2015 development framework, the global community has the opportunity to do better: re-orient its priorities, address causes rather than symptoms of global inequities and inequalities, and pursue a transformative shift toward a more peaceful, equitable and truly sustainable world.  In other words: the post-2015 development agenda offers the opportunity to pursue sustainable development in its fullest sense.

Gender equality must be at the heart of the human rights-based post-2015 development agenda
Women, especially those living in deepest levels of poverty and situations of marginalization, discrimination and violence in its many forms, must be a target population in the post-2015 development framework. While numerous policy agreements, from CEDAW to the Beijing Platform for Action to the Rio Conventions and recent outcomes of those processes, have reflected and asserted important connections between dimensions of sustainable development and gender equality, implementation has been uneven at best, and destructive at worst, sometimes exacerbating inequitable patterns of development, of which women living in poverty are most common victims[3]. In many cases, this is largely due to the fact that structural issues are not addressed from the outset; “gender mainstreaming” is only applied at later stages of implementation, which amounts to tackling symptoms rather than causes. Consider the simple, generic example of a forest management program where gender balance is encouraged in decision-making structures – a positive but insufficient effort if little attention is paid to gender equality in land tenure laws, customary practices, or division of labor in forest activities and products.

Gender equality is essential for environmental sustainability – and vice versa
A prerequisite to sustainable development is gender equality, which goes hand in hand with respecting women’s (as well as men’s) rights and promoting women’s empowerment. Or as UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet said at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, “Rio+20,” in June 2012[4]“A world in balance requires gender equality”. While the global community pushes past planetary boundaries, potentially exceeding average temperatures by 4 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, balance is very much needed. Profound inequalities and inequitable power structures cannot support environmental sustainability.

Measure progress – not ‘growth’
Valuing a healthy planet must trump the current growth-driven models, which are antithetical to the concepts of ‘sustainability’. In addition, gender equality must be understood in its complexities and pursued in a comprehensive, integrated and progressive fashion, recognizing diversity amongst both women and men and their relationships to the environment. To do so, measurements of progress need to go beyond GDP to include environment issues (e.g., biodiversity, water quality) and understand well-being (e.g., realization of rights, access to timely and quality information, justice, education, health care and other services).

Women play important, diverse roles in environmental sustainability
The facts are now well known: especially in developing countries, women play major roles in securing water, food, fuel and fodder for their families and communities. Around the world, women are disproportionately responsible for reproductive labor, which is deeply connected to the availability and use of resources. Drawing on energy as an example: 1.3 billion people are without reliable or sustainable sources of energy, and 40% of the world’s population relies on traditional sources of biomass to cook and heat their homes. WHO has noted that deaths from this smoke inhalation, predominantly affecting women and girls, far surpass deaths from HIV/AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis each year.[5] But what are the underlying causes of this statistic? Women’s and men’s traditional divisions of labor, lack of access and rights to fuel alternatives, lack of access and rights to medical care, education and information, lack of access and rights to viable livelihood options, and many other interlinked factors need to be comprehensively addressed.

Moreover, women’s and men’s relationships with and to the natural environment are deeply diverse and vary across socioeconomic classes and other social constructs. This is reflected in consumption and production patterns, roles in forest conservation and management, access to and control of energy sources, among others. It is therefore important to ensure sex-disaggregated data is collected and analyzed to guide solutions for environmental sustainability that reflect the realities and support the abilities of women and men.

Move beyond the silo approach
An often-cited strength of the MDGs has been their simplicity. A straightforward, measurable approach to meeting global goals suggested a unified vision, but it has also been responsible for uneven success. “Women’s issues”, like environmental issues, continue to be addressed in silos, not recognizing the multi-directional links between gender and environment, resource use, poverty and rights.

Integrate post-2015 and post-Rio+20
Environmental sustainability, like gender equality, must be integrated meaningfully throughout a post-2015 development agenda, which in turn must be integrated with the Post-Rio+20 processes.  A deliberate connection between inequality, poverty and natural resources can avoid further marginalizing the poorest in pursuit of a development agenda that ignores or separates the environment from people. Any environment-related goals must go beyond Multilateral Environmental Agreements; they must build on areas of progress and strength, identify gaps, and harness both toward reorienting the global agenda around sustainable development.  Without a peaceful, stable planet to live on, no other issues matter.

Key principles toward a transformative shift in economic and development trajectories

  • Human rights, which includes the right to natural resources, and which has been mandated by the international community at the highest levels, must be the basis for the post-2015 framework.
  • Common but differentiated responsibility means everyone has progress to make, at every level, in every country, to contribute toward a more sustainable path.
  • Information-sharing and capacity building, and especially technology transfer, are essential in North-South, South-South, and North-North relationships, between and within countries.
  • Equity between countries is only part of the equation: equity within countries needs urgent attention. While women make up half of most nations’ populations, they enjoy far fewer rights, smaller paychecks, and typically higher invisible work burdens than men.
  • Unsustainable cycles of consumption and production must be addressed from the household to the corporate levels, with developed countries leading the shift. The over-reliance on fossil fuels at every level must end, and the energy economy must be replenished by renewable energy that responds to, and is accessible to, the real needs and preferences of the populations facing energy poverty, the majority of whom tend to be women.
  • In the face of a changing climate, resiliency and adaptation must be principles of the post-2015 framework, which must complement a post-2015 UNFCCC agreement, funds and activities that include mitigation and address causes of climate change.
  • Gender equality is essential for environmental sustainability – and vice versa.
  • All development must be sustainable development to ensure long-term, intergenerational solutions that address root causes of poverty and inequality.


  • How can the post-2015 agenda trigger change, balancing the pressing need for environmental sustainability and social justice with much-needed long-term reprioritization of global values?
  • How does the global community measure change? How does nature get measured, and who is responsible for measuring it? To quote Mac Darrow of OHCHR, “How can we measure what we treasure – instead of treasure what we measure?”
  • In efforts to ensure that ‘sustainable development’ is not focused only on environment (as it has been perceived to be), the important inclusion of environmental issues risks being lost. How can the central role of a healthy, functioning environment – and efforts needed to keep it so – be maintained while ensuring that sustainable development does not become a proxy for environmental sustainability, and therefore contribute to a fractured post-2015 development agenda with sustainable development on the one hand and development on the other?
  • How does action for environmental sustainability become universal – recognizing the role of major polluters, and the historical responsibility they bear- balance with the moral imperative that all countries make efforts to ensure sustainability of people and planet, to the best of their ability?


[1] This Discussion Note was drafted by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) as input to the UN Thematic Consultation on Environmental Sustainability. It includes a reflection on key issues to shape the post-2015 development agenda but is by no means intended as an exhaustive list of gender equality, nor environment, issues to include.


[3] According to the UN system, women still make up at least two-thirds – even up to or beyond 70% – of those living in the deepest levels of poverty.


[5] WHO factsheets; also as cited in CAN paper on Energy Consultation.

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