UN Women Discussion Papers

2521-6112 (online)
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The UN Women discussion paper series is a new initiative led by the Research and Data section of UN Women, to provide grounded, fresh and robust perspectives on some of the contemporary challenges to achieving gender equality and women’s rights, and offer insights into policy innovations that are making a difference in women’s lives. The series is a space for leading feminist researchers to share original, substantive research from different national and regional contexts. Before being published, each paper benefits from an anonymous external peer review process by experts, so that the final product is a high quality and relevant piece of research that contributes to further scholarship in the field.

Gender Equality and Sustainable Development: A Pathways Approach

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Isha Ray
04 July 2016
9789213614402 (PDF)

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The challenges of building pathways to sustainability and enhancing gender equality are both urgent. This work explores why they must be addressed together, and how this might be done. It puts forward a ‘gendered pathways approach’, as a conceptual framework for addressing the interactions, tensions and trade-offs between different dimensions of gender equality and of sustainability. The publication provides a historical review of how diverse concepts—or narratives—about women, gender and sustainability have emerged and come to co-exist. It acknowledges tensions and trade-offs in different pathways and addresses the policy and political challenges of transforming pathways towards greater gender equality and sustainability. Ultimately, the authors argue, feminist movements and collective organizing, emerging in diverse ways and places across the world, offer the greatest hope both for challenging unsustainable pathways and for charting new ones that lead us in more sustainable, gender-equal directions.

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  • Summary - Résumé - Resumen

    and enhancing gender equality are both urgent. This paper explores why they must be addressed together, and how this might be done. It begins by showing the moral, ethical and practical reasons why gender equality must be integral to sustainable development. Around many issues – whether work and industrial production, population and reproduction, food and agriculture, or water, sanitation and energy – dominant development pathways have proved both unsustainable and gender unequal. Both economic, social and environmental unsustainability and gender inequality are produced by, and yet threaten to undermine, market-focused, neo-liberal patterns of growth. As troubling intersections of unsustainability and gender inequality create environmental pressures around climate change, biodiversity and pollution, so shocks, stresses and feedbacks may undermine gendered rights and capabilities even further. But the reverse is also possible: Gender equality and sustainability can powerfully reinforce each other in alternative pathways.

  • Introduction

    The twin challenges of building pathways to sustainable development and enhancing gender equality have never been more pressing. As the world embraces and begins to implement Sustainable Development Goals for the post-2015 era, this paper shows why each is so important, but also why they must be addressed together – in ways that fully embrace the politics of gender and of sustainability. It does so by putting forward a new ‘gendered pathways approach’ as a conceptual framework for addressing the interactions, tensions and trade-offs between different dimensions of gender equality and of sustainability – asking consistently ‘sustainability of what, for whom?’.1 We locate this approach in relation to evolving feminist and environment-related theories and practices over the last few decades. We show that integrating insights from feminist political economy and political ecology provides a guide to analysing current pathways of change and their implications and to appreciating alternatives.

  • Pathways of (un) sustainable development and gender (in)equality

    Our arguments in this paper are framed by growing evidence that dominant pathways of development are unsustainable in economic, social and environmental terms. The decades since the 1950s have seen huge growth across many indicators of production and consumption. The global economy has increased by more than a factor of 15, and real world gross domestic product (GDP) grew from US$2 trillion in 1965 to US$28 trillion in 1995.19 This has depended, for the most part, on a development model focused on market- led economic growth under late capitalism. It is supported by powerful narratives, deeply entrenched among many international agencies and market actors, that depict economic growth as the core goal and market-led approaches as the best way to achieve this. Such narratives have co-developed with patterns of production and consumption generally geared to increasing monetary accumulation. Hyper-consumption and materialistic lifestyles are encouraged. Neo-liberal policies and logics emphasize the pursuit of private profits by firms and individuals in markets left as free as possible from state involvement. Business competition and free trade are encouraged, nationally, regionally and globally, but monopolistic practices are left largely uncurbed. There is increased financialization of many resources and sectors of the economy – and trade and speculation in those financialized resources. While there is obviously variation between countries, regions and sectors, much of this lies within the broad parameters of a market-oriented, neo-liberal growth model.

  • Gender and sustainable development: Reviewing concepts and debates

    Even though ‘sustainability’ has become a key concept guiding global, national and local institutional frameworks, policies and interventions, the concept is ever-changing and deeply debated and contested. Gender has been variously ignored by, or incorporated into, conceptualizations and policy debates in a diversity of ways. A brief review highlights the historical roots of some key concepts and approaches that continue to co-exist and compete today, albeit in contemporary forms. Drawing together a chronology of environmental policies and action with evolving feminist perspectives on these, we chronicle – albeit in outline – a rich history of work on gender, environment and sustainable development over the last 30 years, with feminist theory co-evolving with feminist movements. Many of these approaches offer vital insights, principles and ways to enrich our gendered pathways approach, offering valuable potential for the design of policies and interventions and fostering a progressive politics of sustainability and gender equality. Yet, other conceptualizations are problematic and when applied in practice – including those mobilized as narratives by feminist policy makers at particular policy moments – have worked against gender equality and sometimes sustainability too. For each sub-section, we highlight positive contributions and insights, drawbacks and dangers in theory or when translated into policy, projects or practice as well as potential aspects to take forward into a gendered pathways approach.

  • Elaborating a gendered pathways approach

    Returning to our definition, the challenge is to identify and build pathways of sustainable development – that is, development that ensures human well-being, ecological integrity, gender equality and social justice, now and in the future. Pathways, as defined and illustrated earlier, are alternative directions of intervention and change, underpinned by particular framings and narratives that embody selective values, knowledge and power relations. Pathways can emerge from the unintended actions of multiple actors, coming to align in particular directions. They can also be shaped and steered through active intervention by citizens, governments and other actors. As previous sections have shown, there are urgent needs to challenge current unsustainable pathways of production, consumption and distribution and to recognize and support alternatives.

  • Towards gender-equal sustainable development: Policy frameworks and political strategies

    To challenge unsustainable pathways and move towards sustainable development and gender equality will require action at many levels by a diversity of actors. States and inter-governmental processes must be central. However, key opportunities for transformation also lie in the ideas and actions of civil society and social movements, businesses and the private sector, communities and individuals – and in building gender-progressive sustainable development alliances between them.

  • Conclusion

    In this paper, we have argued that gender equality must be integral to sustainable development. We have demonstrated many reasons why: Apart from the moral and ethical imperatives involved, attention to gender differences and relations is vital to avoid the costs of economic and environmental change undermining gendered rights and capabilities and further compromising the sustainability of households, communities and societies. And it is crucial in order to recognize and build on the agency and knowledge of diverse women and men towards sustainable paths.

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