Infinite Growth, Finite Planet

Plaiting Three Strands: Gender-Based Violence as a Cause of Global Warming

By Yvette Abrahams

Commissioner For Gender Equality


“In 1977 the world had a population of 4116 million… The world at this time had 1440 million hectares of farmland, that is land under a plough or permanent crops – just over a third of a hectare or just under one acre per person. By the year 2000, at present rates of growth, the world will have 6397 million people to feed and only one fifth of a hectare, or around half an acre, per person to do it with. Or it may be even less as present agricultural practices, war and a more extreme climate continue to degrade, erode and desertify our agricultural land. … Clearly a working system of birth control is a pleasanter prospect than genocide or plague. A system of resource management other than war is vital.”[1]

Global climate change is increasingly emerging as a major threat to social cohesion with extreme weather such as drought and floods threatening to set off setting off large scale diasporas which are unsettling many a fragile civil peace. Increasingly, we are being warned that:

“Climate change and shrinking natural resources are becoming a major source of instability and political conflict. Battles over scarce water and land resources, oil and gas, or rare minerals are no science fiction. Resource conflicts are already heating up ethic, religious and political rivalries, eg. in Sudan. If climate change runs out of control, it will cause more failed states, mass migration and social disintegration.”[2]

In a broader sense, one could argue that capitalist, white supremacist heteropatriarchy is in itself a both a major threat to social cohesion and the most important contributing factor to global warming. Capitalism depends on economic growth for its continued existence. Economic growth in its turn is associated with population growth. Another way of putting it is that capitalism depends for its survival on the free reproductive labour of women. The fact is that capitalism has always been able to rely for its existence on unpaid systems. The concept ecosystem services clarifies this: In order for capitalist industry to operate, it has to rely on nature to provide provisioning services, (food, fuel, etc), regulating services (eg. water purification, climate control), cultural services (cultural and religious values, recreation), and supporting services such as nutrient cycling (decomposition of organic materials) and provision of habitat. The only costs reflected in the capitalist market has been the cost of extracting these items from the natural world. Capitalists have not paid the real cost, which would be the cost of reproducing these services for the next generation. But “between 1960 and 2000, the demand for ecosystems grew significantly as the world’s population doubled to 6 billion people and the global economy increased more than sixfold.”[3] Global warming is a sign that the world economy has hit the limit of the eco-system’s ability to provide free services.

Of course, many feminists have argued for years that capitalism could not exist without the free labour of women:

“As we shift our focus towards validating the gift paradigm and seeing the defects of the exchange paradigm, many things acquire a different appearance. Patriarchal capitalism… is revealed as a parasitic system, where those above are nurtured by the free gifts of their ‘hosts’ below.”[4]

It has been estimated that the value of women’s unpaid labour in domestic work equals about one third of the world’s GDP. Even in a relatively industrialized country like Britain, fully employed British mothers spend an average 18 hours per week more than men, or almost half an extra working week, on unpaid domestic work.[5]  Worldwide, the situation is bleak. Women are estimated to own less than one percent of the arable land, but are considered to contribute some 60-80 % of their countries’ food.[6] By far the major part of this labour is free, especially in small-scale agricultural systems where marriage laws and customs award ownership of land and decision-making over crops to men. In Kenya, only 6% of Kenyan women have title deeds to land, although 96 % of rural women work on family farms. [7] In Malawi, only 2.7 % of women are registered owners of commercial land, although 70 % of full-time farmers are women who contribute 80% of the labour in the agricultural sector.[8]  In Uganda, women own only 5 % of the land, often have insecure tenure to the land that they do use, yet account for the largest share of agricultural production. [9]

With regard to South Africa, the relevant data is complex. We are just about concluding our own research on the ability of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform to keep gender-disaggregated data. Unfortunately, it appears to be as true today as it did in  2003, that:

“The DLA has not yet developed an effective monitoring system and accordingly is unable to provide information on the number of female claimants and/or beneficiaries or on the overall impact of land reform programme on women. The absence of statistics impact negatively on the DLA’s ability to formulate and imlement policies that effectively address women’s access to land. A further constraint is the lack of government resources (including financial resources and committed personnel) to enforce gender equality.”[10]

We have had one estimate in 2004, when 11.9 % of beneficiaries from land distribution were female-headed households.[11] There has also been a more recent report showing that, while there are no figures available for female beneficiaries of the land restitution programme, it is possible to say that since 1994, female-headed households have formed some 13.3 % of beneficiaries of the Land Redistribution and Tenure Reform programme.[12] This national average conceals wide provincial variations ranging from 1.63 % in Mpumalanga to 41.25 % in the Western Cape.[13] Given that by now some 5 % of land has been redistributed, this would give a reasonably reliable estimate of women’s land ownership of about 1 % in South Africa.

With respect to the free labour of women, a national study showed that in 2000, men spent an average of some 87 minutes per day on productive activities excluded form GDP calculations, while women worked just under three times longer, or an average of about 247 minutes per day.[14]  The value of unpaid labour could be calculated as between 32% and 38 % of GDP, of which about three quarters is provided by women.[15]  In 2003 it was estimated that 80% of the unpaid labour in the agricultural sector is contributed by women.[16] Since then, it is likely that the ration of unpaid labour has increased. First, the increased prevalence of HIV/AIDS has led to an increased burden of care which has fallen largely on women. Second, economic policies have led to a gradual replacement of monetized services by free labour. Thus a study of 40 households in 2005 concluded that the effect of trade liberalization (the Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy, or GEAR) on unpaid labour is that:

“[Women’s] market and non-market work increase is roughly double that of men, at the expense of their pure leisure time. As a large proportion of [men’s] time spent outside market work is devoted to leisure activities rather than domestic work, men perform even less domestic work with trade liberalization, especially in urban areas and within the female headed household categories.”[17]

These results are not surprising since women even in urban areas tend to compensate for a fall in real wages by increasing the amount of unpaid labour they put into family reproduction. The effects of high consumer inflation rates in 2007-2008 on women’s unpaid labour have yet to measured, but anecdotal evidence suggests that women adapt by choosing to walk instead of taking a taxi, for instance, or by baking bread instead of buying it. The response to a fall in real income is to substitute unpaid labour for cash.

With respect to women in the commercial farming sector it has been observed that women by and large do not have independent contracts for labour, that they form the greater part of the part-time or seasonal labour force and that their access to work is tied to that of a male relative, usually a husband.[18] Overall figures for women’s access to the labour market show that women systematically are excluded from equal opportunities in the labour market. The unemployment rate for women (narrow definition) in 2003 was 35.9 % as compared to 27.2 % for men. By 2007, this rate was 30.8 % for women as compared to 21.1 % for men.[19] Thus not only are women accessing the labour market to a lesser extent than men, but the growth in employment between 2003-2007 has overwhelmingly benefited men. It should also be borne in mind that these measures do not make a difference between part-time and contract employment, on the one hand, and full-time employment on the other. Women are concentrated in the former category. Therefore the unemployment figures understate the full extent of the obstacles to female labour force participation.

When they do get work women earn less. In the paid labour force, as of 2005, female (paid) economic activity in South Africa was 58% that of male, and the ratio of estimated female to male earned income was 0.45, that is for every rand earned by men, women earn 45 cents.[20] Thus it should come as no surprise to learn that female-headed households predominate amongst the poorest of the poor, or that roughly twice the ratio of children in female-headed households went hungry compared to children in male-headed households.[21]

Taken together, these figures reveal the stubbornness of patriarchal structures. Despite the fact that South Africa has achieved massive strides in women’s access to education, with a Gender Parity Index (weighted ratio of girl learners to boy learners) of 1,005 in 2003 and 1,006 in 2007, this apparent equality in education is not translating into more equal female participation in the labour market.[22]  It is safe to conclude that the majority of women in rural South Africa are no different from women in the rest of Africa, in that they do not have independent access to land, while they work land they do not own without getting paid for their labour. This social system makes it necessary for a woman to bear sons for a man in order simply to be able to get usufruct rights to the land.   In urban areas women suffer a significant reduction of life chances and physical well-being if they do not enter into a social and economic partnership with a man (otherwise known as compulsory heterosexuality) and such a partnership reduces a woman’s ability to choose her own rate of reproduction.

Feminists designate such a system heteropatriarchal. It provides men with heirs and capitalism with cheap labour. It, incidentally, forces women to have children simply in order to eat and lead a somewhat decent life.  Another way of putting it is that capitalist heteropatriarchy structures economic violence against women in such a way that they must lose control over their reproductive powers. Women under such a system cannot choose to have children because they want to. They have children because they must. And a system in which women have lost control over their reproductive powers inevitably leads to population increase.

Here I would like to posit a counter-factual. Imagine a society, such as an ancient Khoesan matriarchal system, where the women of the clan simply sat down and decided there were too many humans in the world and not enough space for other species, and that it would be best to not have children for a while until things had sorted themselves out. Imagine that such a decision was neither controversial not surprising, but simply a case of a species taking responsibility for their part in the total ecology of the Earth. I hope this brief excursion sharpens your sense of the shocking nature of capitalist heteropatriarchy!

The problem today is that uncontrolled population growth is not just a factor in the oppression of women. Every inhabitant of the world is becoming affected. The truth is, we are a greenhouse gas emitting species. We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. We consume food and excrete manure which emits methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Apart from our physical nature, our mode of production is based on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels which are of course greenhouse gas. There is a class factor to this, in that the children of the rich emit multiple times more gases because they consume more goods and services. However, apart from the fact that any level of emissions is too much, we cannot ignore the sheer weight of multitudes. An extra one billion people on earth will have a severely negative effect on global warming, whether they get enough to eat or not.

Well, it is expected that by 2050 the world will harbour another 3 billion human inhabitants. There is no way this will not have an impact on the climate. We should not be sitting and quietly accepting a world population increase of this order. Human production last matched world bio-capacity in 1987.[23]  At that point we were a population of five billion people.[24]  Clearly climate change mitigation must come about partly through a fall in population. It could be argued that what matters is not the absolute numbers but the carbon emitting consumption of each individual. This argument has often been used to absolve developing countries of any responsibility for reducing carbon emissions or providing reproductive health services. But it is certainly not true for South Africa. We rank 15:th in the world in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. By comparison, it stands at 121 in terms of the United Nations Human Development Index, and is 56:th of 177 countries in terms of GDP per capita (income per person).[25] A study of five middle income countries showed that, while South Africa had the lowest rate of GDP per capita of selected countries, it had rates of carbon emissions between two and three times higher than the other countries.[26] Worldwide, South Africa ranks as a high carbon emitter:

“With 0.7% of the world’s population, South Africa accounts for 1.5% of global emissions – an average of 9.8 tonnes of CO2 per person. These emission levels are above those of Sub-Saharan Africa. If all countries in the world were to emit CO2 at levels similar to South Africa’s, we would exceed our sustainable carbon budget by approximately 340%.” [27]

This is due in large part to ESKOM electricity-from-coal power stations, and SASOL, which is the single largest producer of greenhouse gases per square meter in the world.

While we all must pay the price for global warming, with the poor (whom, if you recall, are mainly women and children) having the least ability to successfully adapt to or mitigate climate change, it is an extremely moot point whether any of this dirty growth has actually made a difference to the majority of people. The second problem with the argument that developing countries should not cut emissions is the assumption that economic growth is a necessity. This holds true only if you are a heteropatriarchal capitalist. It is hard to see who else gains. As the last ten years of our “development” shows, economic growth trickles down extremely slowly to the poor, if at all. In fact, while some have benefited from the “new” South Africa, the poorest have become poorer. The increase in the Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) from 0.64 in 1995 to 0.69 in 2005 demonstrates this.[28] The rich are getting richer faster than the poor are climbing out of poverty. While real (inflation-adjusted) overall levels of income have been rising since 1994, as well as real per capita levels,  a rise in the Gini coefficient implies that we have not managed to distribute income increases equitously. Coming out of apartheid we were already one of the most unequal countries in the world. Now we are worse.

High rates of economic inequality means that the majority of the population would have more to gain from redistributing existing production rather than economic growth. In fact, we would have eliminated poverty much faster by pursuing a zero-growth option which redistributed goods, services and life chances. Instead we have pursued this high rate of economic inequality at tremendous cost to the environment – and now we all have to pay the price.

The gender implications are shocking. Societies with a high degree of inequality tend to have low degrees of social cohesion and high levels of violence. Class structures must be enforced by violence since one cannot expect the poor to accept their lot without a struggle. In highly stratified societies this means that levels of violence become normalized, and therefore violence against women becomes endemic. This tendency is more severe in post-conflict societies, such as South Africa, which have had very low levels of social cohesion to begin with. So it should come as no surprise that the rate of femicide in South Africa was in 2004 the highest in the world, with the highest incidence occurred in the Western Cape.[29] Using the rate of femicide as an indicator for the real rate of gender-based violence, this points to a alarmingly high rate of gender-based violence in South Africa, with a concomitant inability of women to achieve control over their reproductive choices. A staggering 30% of girls in South Africa said that their first sexual experience was under force or threat of force.[30] Generally teenage pregnancies in sub-saharan Africa, while declining, remain the highest in the world at an estimated 119 per thousand, as compared to a developing country average of 53.[31] This is a critical indicator for population growth, since teenage mothers tend to suffer a diminution of life chances, and a higher rate of childbirth, than the population at large. In this context it is particularly disturbing to note that the rate of pregnancy amongst school girls in South Africa as a whole is 14%, while schools in Gauteng province the incidence had doubled between 2005-2006.[32]   The proportion of married women with an unmet need for family planning services in sub-Saharan Africa is 24 %, again the highest in the world.[33] One should also note our high rate of HIV/AIDS prevalence – 40 % for women in 2007 with females in younger age groups being four times as likely to be infected than men.[34] If we view this as an indicator for the amount of unprotected sex going on, it lays bare quite how little family planning is going on.

The most shocking figure perhaps is the recent study conducted among pregnant women attending an antenatal clinic at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town which found that 10% of the prospective mothers were abusing the drug Methamphetamine (or “tik” as it is known in the Western Cape). [35]  Substance abusing mothers and fathers are clearly not choosing anything except to be out of control over their own lives. In short it is not unreasonable to conclude that the majority of children born are not planned or responsibly chosen. Our uncontrolled population increase reflects powerlessness and causes suffering. Strangely enough, our Constitution does not guarantee every child the right to be wanted and loved. Perhaps this is something we should introduce?

It is important to emphasize that the argument that developing countries bear no responsibility for cutting greenhouse gas emissions only holds on the assumption that all those babies born to women are doomed to remain poor. The reality of increasing income inequality has in meant that the economic development of formerly colonized countries is becoming an increasingly larger contributor to the current crisis. Having chosen an environmentally dirty growth path, some people are benefiting tremendously.  Developing countries such as India, Brazil and China are also developing huge and growing middle classes. Although the current rates of greenhouse gas emissions per capita in these three countries are below the world average at present, the sheer weight of numbers is speedily raising them to the level of major emitters on a world scale. As countries of the global north increasingly switch to renewable energy it is likely that these three countries, together with South Africa, will become the world’s largest carbon emitters within a decade.  Thus a both/and approach that looks at both increasing women’s reproductive choices and low growth redistributive economies within these countries is necessary.

In conclusion I would like to state that on every front – from women regaining their rights to reproductive choice thus enabling them to make no more children than the earth can support; to changing our cultural systems from exploitation as the social norm to an understanding that what goes around comes around, that you sow what you reap, and that your chickens will come home to roost – the matter of global warming urgently requires a feminist analysis. What I have said here has been neither startlingly new nor theoretically innovative. It is in fact merely a restating of very classic feminist theories. The statistics indicate that they bear restating.

Moreover, I would like to point out that feminism has much to offer. Women are part of the solution. From an implementation point of view organizing environmental behavioural change is as socially complex as ending GBV or stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS. It is here that gender specialists have a unique knowledge base and a sorely needed set of skills. In moving this country towards gender equality we have had to speak to everybody and consider every viewpoint. Yet we have demonstrated that we can achieve progressive movement towards our goals, given a supportive policy environment.

One would hardly call the World Wildlife Fund your most feminist organization. Yet it argues that “empowerment of women, education, and access to voluntary family planning can slow or even reverse population growth.”[36] The fact is that gender equality worldwide is associated with a fall in the rate of reproduction. When women have more choices, they tend to choose to have fewer but healthier children. So work to produce a better economy should go hand in hand with gender equality work. Ultimately we should aim to have a stable or slightly falling population, whose standard of living we can then work to provide through low greenhouse gas emissions technology. Therefore gender equality is not something I ask you to pursue simply because you are a woman, or because you like women. It is something we have to achieve or pay the price as a species. We can stand together or fall apart. It is that simple.

[1] .Bell, Graham The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps To Create A Self-Sustaining World, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Vermont, 1992, pp. 28-29.

[2] . Fűcks, Ralf “Co-operation Or Chaos: What Kind of World Order?” Paper presented at conference on Climate Change, Resources, Migration: Old And New Sources of Conflict in Africa , Cape Town, 3-4 August, 2009. Available at Last accessed 20 October, 2009.

[3] . “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment”, cited in Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity Biodiversity and Agriculture: Safeguarding Biodiversity and Securing Food for the World, Montreal, 2008, pp. 15.

[4] . Vaughan, Genevieve For-Giving: A Feminist Critique of Exchange Anomaly Press and Plain View Press, Austin, Texas, 2002, pp. 34

[5] . Greater London Authority. 2006. Gender Equality Scheme 2007-10:Draft For Consultation, pp. 10. Available at

[6] .  Action Aid “Women and Food Crises: How US Food Aid Can Better Support Their Struggles- A Discussion Paper”, n.d., pp.2.

[7] . Ibid., pp. 8.

[8] .  Ibid..

[9] . World Bank World Development Report 2008: Agriculture and Development, pp. 86. Available at  Last accessed 8 June, 2008.

[10] .  Weideman, M Women and Land Reform in South Africa n.d., pp. 2 of 15.  Available at  Last accessed 07/07/2008.

[11] .   I Ikdahl, A Hellum, R Kaarhus, T A Benjaminsen and P Kameri-Mbote “Human Rights, Formalisation and Women’s Land Rights in Southern and Eastern Africa” Studies in Women’s Law No 57, Institute of Women’s Law, University of Oslo, June 2005, pp. 62.

[12] . The Presidency, Republic of South Africa, Draft Second CEDAW Report, Pretoria, 2009, pp. 122; hereinafter CEDAW2.

[13] . CEDAW2, pp. 123.

[14] . Budlender, D and A Brathaug Calculating the Value of Unpaid Labour: A Discussion Document Statistics South Africa Working Paper 2002/1, 2002, pp. 15. 

[15] . Depending on what method of calculation used. Cf. Budlender op cit pp. 17.

[16] . Weideman Women and Land Reform, pp. 9 of 15, citing M Modise “Women in Agricultural Development” Land Update, no. 66, 1998.

[17] .  Cockburn, J I Fofana, B Decaluwe, R Mabugu, and M Chitiga A Gender-Focused Macro-Micro Analysis of the Poverty Impacts of Trade Liberalization in South Africa Research on Economic Inequality , Vol. 15, pp. 269-305, 2007. Available at:  .  Last  accessed 23 January, 2009.  

[18] . Cf. Shabodien, Fatima “Livelihoods Struggles of Women Farm Workers in South Africa”, South African Labour Bulletin, June, 2006, pp. 1.

[19] .CEDAW2,  pp. 52.

[20] . Cf. United Nations Human Development Report 2007/2008, Table 31, pp. 340, and Table 29, pp. 332.

[21] . Commission For Gender Equality Gender Barometer Project: Baseline Report on Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality, 2007  Braamfontein, 2009, pp. 25.

[22] .  The Presidency, Republic of South Africa Development Indicators, 2008, Pretoria, 2008,  pp. 46 , hereinafter PDI.

[23] . World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report 2008, pp. 2. Available at . Last accessed 2 October, 2009.

[24] . National Centre For Biotechnology Information “The day the World Population Reached 5 Billion: 11 July, 1987”  Available at Last accessed 2 October, 2009.

[25] . United Nations Human Development Report, 2007-2008. Page 1 of 7. Available at  Last checked 2 October 2009

[26] . Pera, Nicolette A Comparative Study Of Energy related Carbon Dioxide Emissions From South Africa and Related Countries, M.Sc., Rand Afrikaans University, 2001, pp. 36.  SA was compared to Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and Spain.

[27] . UNDP op. cit.

[28] .    PDI,  pp.6

[29] . Mathews, Shanaaz, Naeemah Abrahams, Lorna Martin, Lisa Vetten, Lisa van der Merwe and Rachel Jewkes “Every Six Hours a Woman is Killed By Her Intimate Partner: A National Study of Female Homicide in South Africa” Medical Research Council Policy Brief No. 5, June, 2004.

[30] . Commission For Gender Equality Gender Barometer Report: Baseline Report on Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality, 2007  Braamfontein, 2009, pp. 59.

[31] . United Nations Millennium Development Goal Report, 2008, pp. 28.  Available at, last checked 2 October, 2009.

[32].  CGE Gender Barometer  op cit

[33]MDG Report, 2008, pp. 27.

[34] . CGE Gender Barometer  op cit.

[35] . Stewart, Chantal.  Paper presented to the 14th International Federation of Gynecology & Obstetrics World
Congress of Gynecology and Obstetrics. Available at

[36] . World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report 2008, pp. 3.

2 thoughts on “Infinite Growth, Finite Planet

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