PCDForum Column #50, Release Date June 25, 1993
by Vandana Shiva
While gender subordination and patriarchy are the oldest of oppressions,
they have taken on new and more violent forms through the project of
development. Through its appropriation and destruction of the natural resource
base this project has systematically removed from women’s management and control
the land, water and forest resources from which they produced the sustenance on
which the survival of their families depended. This has simultaneously impaired
both women’s productivity and the productivity and renewability of nature
Patriarchal categories have defined the active as masculine and the passive
as feminine, valuing the former and denigrating the latter. Thus resource
destruction, being active, has been positively valued as a productive activity,
while more passive, less intrusive participation in life’s regenerative
processes has been denigrated as feminine and unproductive. The activities of
women, nature, and life itself thus have been denied value, resulting in modes
of maldevelopment that have further exacerbated male-female inequality.
This bias is deeply imbedded in a reductionist economics that assumes only
paid labor produces value. Thus man’s dependence on the natural world is ignored
and women’s work in producing sustenance is deprecated, even as that work
provides the very basis of survival and well-being. When Third World women
provide their families with water, fodder, and wood from the free commons that
nature provides, neither their work nor the natural product that sustains their
families is assigned economic value.
In premodern subsistence economies, the separate male and female domains of
work are interdependent and complementary, based on diversity not inequality.
Dominant modes of perception based on reductionism, duality and linearity are
unable to cope with the concept of equality within a diversity of forms and
activities that are all significant and valid, even though different.
Almost everywhere in the world, rural people, both peasants and tribals, who
live in and derive sustenance from nature, have a systematic and deep knowledge
of nature’s processes of reproducing wealth. Their lives and culture embody and
balance the feminine and masculine principles. Women’s roles as carriers of the
feminine principle of respect for life in nature and society are recognized and
The metaphors and concepts produced by minds deprived of the feminine
principle fail to embrace "life" as the central concern in organizing
human society. They thus become a threat to life itself.
It now appears that the future of our ecologically devastated world may
depend on recovery of the feminine principle, by men as well as women, in the
North as well as the South. Thus we find that the intellectual heritage for
ecological survival lies with those who are experts in survival, the women whose
lives most embody the feminine principle and whose economic contributions have
been most disparaged.
In the world-view personified by the Chipko women’s movement in India,
nature is Prakriti, the creator and source of wealth. The struggles of such
women for survival through the protection of nature are showing us that nature
is the very basis and matrix of economic life. They are showing that production
of sustenance is basic to survival itself and cannot be deleted from economic
calculations. If production of life cannot be reckoned with in money terms, then
it is economic models and not women’s work in producing sustenance and life,
that must be sacrificed.
While Third World women have privileged access to survival expertise, their
knowledge is inclusive, not exclusive. The ecological categories with which they
think and act can become the categories of liberation for all, for men as well
as for women, for the West as well as the non-West, and for the human as well as
the non-human elements of the earth.
The intellectual recovery of the feminine principle creates new conditions
for women and non-Western cultures to become principal actors in establishing a
democracy of all life, as Third World women bring the concern with living and
survival back to centre-stage in human history. In recovering the chances for
the survival of all life, they are laying the foundations for the recovery of
the feminine principle in nature and society, and through it the recovery of the
earth as sustainer and provider.
Vandana Shiva is director of the Research Foundation for Science,
Technology, and Natural Resource Policy, 105 Rajpur Road, Dehra Dun, Uttar
Pradesh 248001, India and a contributing editor of the People-Centered
Development Forum. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum
based on her series "Science, Violence and Gender in Third World Resurgence