Ask Global Greengrants Fund’s Executive Director Terry Odendahl what women’s rights have to do with the environment, and she’ll say, ‘Everything!’ A passionate advocate for women’s leadership, Terry has been at the helm of Global Greengrants Fund since 2009. She previously served as the executive director of two women’s funds and was on the Women’s Studies Program faculty at the University of California, San Diego.
In honor of International Women’s Day 2013, Terry talks about the relationship between women’s rights and environmental activism, and why Global Greengrants Fund is prioritizing grantmaking with a gender lens.
Why is Global Greengrants Fund, an environmental fund, prioritizing women’s leadership?
Gender is a basic organizing principle in all societies. In fact, women comprise more than half of the world’s total population, yet there a few societies in which women, as a group or individually, hold as much power as men. Without question, half the population must be involved in creating the environmental and social justice change essential to the survival of people and the planet.
I wrote in my 2012 Annual Report letter that, like nature, women have been seen as dangerous, things to be tamed, civilized, and exploited. If we seek to change people’s relationship to the environment, we have to challenge the gender balance and make more space for women as leaders.
Taking gender into consideration in our grantmaking means we need to look at how women and men are treating and protecting the environment. I’m not in a position to declare what the optimal interaction between men’s and women’s roles would be in every part of the world. I do know, however, that only when women and men work together can we accomplish real social justice and save our planet.
It’s for this reason that each of our regional advisory boards is evaluating how to prioritize grantmaking with a gender lens. I’m especially pleased to report that our India Advisory Board considers gender as a central part of every grant it recommends. For example, when the board evaluates whether to fund a sustainable-agriculture or seed-saving project, it also looks at the role women will play in the project. If women aren’t currently involved, our advisors discuss ways to encourage their participation.
Grantmaking with a gender lens must also require looking at how power is distributed in the cultural contexts within which Global Greengrants Fund works.
Absolutely. Using a gender lens in our global grantmaking requires us to do a power analysis. We need to recognize and challenge how different cultures normalize discrimination and oppression. To empower women, it is also essential to understand how gender interacts with other forms of vulnerability, such as class and caste, color, ethnicity, nationality, race, disability, and sexuality. Everything is interconnected.
When women assume leadership, both formally and more informally, all around the planet, they change age-old power relationships, including – potentially – the drive toward environmental destruction.
Do you believe women lead differently than men do?
I wouldn’t say that women have different forms of leadership than men. Women vary considerably from person to person, whatever their class, ethnicity, or color. We have different cultures, jobs within our cultures, opinions, personalities, and status. Generalizations lead to contradictions and exceptions. On a spectrum, any one woman can be as different from another woman as she is from a man.
Because of our traditional roles, in childrearing and the family, for example, and the expectation that we will fill them, in most societies, we have been socialized to be more nurturing than men. Some believe women are more collaborative than men.
Can you give an example of how Global Greengrants Fund support is empowering women’s leadership?
Take the case of Bolivia’s Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, which is known by its Spanish acronym, TIPNIS. A river is the only highway that should run through the heart of this protected 5,000-square-mile Amazonian park. It is home to more than 10,000 indigenous people, whose traditions and lands have changed very little for centuries – until now. A Brazilian company wants to build a high-speed highway right through the center of this pristine rainforest. The megaproject would bring farm development, illegal deforestation, wildlife poaching and a loss of indigenous culture.
Sensing imminent threat to their customs, children and environment, women raised their voices. For the first time ever, they united Bolivia’s indigenous groups and prompted communities to participate in massive protest marches. In 2011 and again in 2012, women, men, and children trekked more than 360 miles from Bolivia’s lowlands over the Andes and into the capital of La Paz. On the doorstep of the president, women leaders like Justa Cabrera and Bertha Bejarano demanded a voice in the development decisions that impact indigenous people’s lives and lands.
Global Greengrants Fund has been proud to support social action in Bolivia, where, for perhaps the first time in the country’s history, women are playing a central role in environmental and indigenous leadership.
How do you think transforming the gender equation can help protect, restore, and transform the planet?
Terry Odendahl is executive director of Global Greengrants Fund
Read further articles from Terry Odendahl in Alliance magazine: