A personal journey by Irene Dankelman, Former WEDO Board Chair

Thinking of about 20 years ago, I really feel privileged to have been part of the movement that shaped a gender perspective into sustainable development. In the early 1990s I was working with the United Nations Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM, in New York as their gender-environment advisor, preparing for the upcoming United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. On many occasions we met with members of women’s organizations in the lead up to the Conference.

I remember a meeting room in the cellars of the UN building in New York: fully packed with women from all regions of the world. It was really hot there, not only because of the temperatures but also because of our heated debates. At the table – I only recall there was one table, the rest of us were standing – was, with her red hat, the ‘captain of our ship’: Bella Abzug, instructing all of us newcomers on how to handle delegate A, B or C, or on what to fight for. We had Wangari Maathai, Vandana Shiva, Jocelyn Dow, Thais Corral, Mim Kelber and Chief Bisi around.  The Women’s Caucus, organized by the Women’s Environment Development Organization (WEDO),  was one of the few caucuses (as far as I remember there was only one other organized by the NGOs), and we all hurried there every morning to discuss texts, interventions and strategies.

We had developed our own agenda: the Women’s Action Agenda for a Healthy Planet. From 8-12 November 1991, during the First World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet in Miami, WEDO brought together more than 1,500 women from 83 countries to work jointly on a strategy for UNCED. The Congress consisted of expert testimonies, jury panels, and workshops. We aimed to produce a women’s action agenda, to ensure that delegations were gender balanced, and to build a network of women acting on environment and development. For the Congress, WEDO had a great partnership with members of DAWN, Development Alternatives for Women in a New Era, of Peggy Antrobus and others.

The Women’s Action Agenda for a Healthy Planet, WAA21, starts with a common vision that focuses on the interaction between the life-giving capacity of the Earth and women’s shared concerns about the health of the planet, social inequalities and the systems and values that shape these problems. It presented a holistic, integrative perspective, and criticized ongoing economic thinking as well as existing models and practices of development. The WAA21 reflected a strong human rights approach calling for the recognition of women as powerful agents of change and as initiators of environmental activism, and identifying eleven Action Areas in which immediate steps were needed.

The WAA21 formed the basis for our efforts to influence the UNCED negotiations. Also at the Earth Summit in Rio in June 1992 itself, hundreds of women from all corners of the world participated in meetings in the NGO Global Forum in the Flamingo Park, particularly in the Women’s Tent, or Planeta Femea.  The Women’s Tent – yes it was a real tent – was organized by the Brazilian Women’s Coalition (REDEH) in cooperation with WEDO, and included daily workshops structured around the themes of the WAA21. Women were very visible in some of the official meetings, not only because of their persistence but also because Mr. Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the Earth Summit in Rio, was a great supporter of women’s participation.

We left Rio with Principle 20 (of the Rio Declaration) in our hands: “Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.” And in the encyclopedia thick Agenda 21, Chapter 24 reflected “Global Action for Women towards Sustainable Development” in 11 commitments and with specific recommendations to strengthen the role of women in sustainable and beneficial development. Agenda 21 had 145 other references, mentioning the necessary steps to be taken from a gender perspective. At the time, of the three Rio Conventions, only the Convention on Biodiversity and the Convention to Combat Desertification had some gender references. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), failed to do so.

We had lobbied with the NGOs and with indigenous groups for many more innovative and fundamental ideas to be included in these Rio results, so we came home a bit disappointed. Now, looking back twenty years, I must conclude that we have gained a lot at the Earth Summit’92 in Rio, and that women as well as gender issues had for the first time in history been put on the sustainable development agenda. We have many references that have been waiting for their full implementation now for over two decades. What stays, is a much more fundamental approach towards a peaceful and healthy planet, because as Bella Abzug once said:

Women do not want to be mainstreamed into a polluted stream: We want the stream to be clean, clear and healthy.”

Irene Dankelman,

Malden, 14 October 2011.

join the movement

Women and girls around the world are demanding and creating systemic change and a sustainable future for all. We need collective power to attain a just future – we need you.