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The Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) was founded in1990 by the late Bella Abzug (former Democratic U.S. congresswoman; 1920-98), and Mim Kelber (1922-2004), a well-known women’s rights and peace activist. As noted in their mission statement, the international organization “advocates for women’s equality in global policy. It seeks to empower women as decision makers to achieve economic, social and gender justice, a healthy, peaceful planet and human rights for all.”
WEDO was inspired by an earlier movement, women in development (WID), which began in the 1970s and was a shift in international aid development policies to emphasize the importance of women’s roles in economic development. The WID approach was later institutionalized by aid organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and served as impetus for the First United Nations (UN) Conference on Women and Development in Mexico City in 1975. WID was an important foundation for the feminist movement of its time and it helped make women’s voices heard in international development projects and policies. It also helped set in motion the concept of ecofeminism, a belief that the connection of women with nature is so strong that it “called upon women to lead an ecological revolution to save the planet.”
As women’s voices from Northern and Southern countries became heard regarding topics of environment and development (including not just those of well-educated and upper or middle-class backgrounds-but also women from farming, fishing, and indigenous communities), world leaders and nongovernmental organizations began preparations for the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held at Rio de Janiero, also known as the Earth Summit. Abzug and Kelber, influenced by the infamous Bruntland Report, were concerned that even after two decades of WID policies and discourse, few women occupied positions associated with global policy formulation. As a strategy to attract attention from the global community and those creating the UNCED agenda, Azbug and Kelber created WEDO to formally organize a conference called the World Congress for a Healthy Planet in Miami in 1991. The 1,500 women there agreed to demand press leaders at UNCED for an equal say in governmental policies created by local and global governments or institutions. They believed that “male-led technologies, wars, and industries are killing people and the planet.” Their vision was that more women must be involved in designing policies that linked environment with issues of poverty and social justice and that this would be an important advance toward bringing the “earth’s political, economic, social and spiritual systems into healthy balance.”
The Healthy Planet conference, as intended, was instrumental in leveraging women’s influence on UNCED and ultimately increased women’s visibility in decision making regarding policy issues that link environment with issues of poverty, social justice, free trade and international debt. The mechanism that was used to gain influence in UNCED and produced by WEDO, as a result of the Healthy Planet conference, was called “Women’s Action Agenda 21,” referencing Agenda 21 because this was the title of the document that governments from participating countries at UNCED planned to produce at Rio de Janeiro.
Action Agenda 21 contained a list of specific demands regarding topics of: Democratic rights, diversity, environmental ethics, women and militarism, foreign debt, trade, poverty, land rights, food security, population and women’s rights, biotechnology and biodiversity, alternative energy and nuclear power, technology and science, consumer power of women, education, and information. The document also challenged the UN for its lack of gender balance in the organization itself. The WEDO lobbying efforts using Action Agenda 21 were successful in positioning women’s issues in Agenda 21 in a majority of the chapters in the document, as well as one chapter specifically dedicated to women’s roles in globally sustainable and equitable development.
WEDO continues to stay active in pressing the UN for a “wider gender lens” in all of its activities and policies, particularly the UN Millennium Declaration, a 2000 Declaration agreed upon by 191 governments at the largest gathering ever of world leaders. The organization campaigns for women’s rights throughout the world. Its recent activities include: Beijing +10, a 2005 campaign to reaffirm the Original Action Plan of the 1995 Fourth Conference on Women held in Beijing, China; and a global campaign: “Plant a Tree for Peace,” commemorating Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai and connecting environment, human rights, peace and gender equity.
- Abzug, “The Century of the Woman,” Social Policy (v.28, 1998);
- Boserup, Woman’s Role in Economic Development (St. Martin’s Press, 1970);
- Langara, “How Beijing Has Been Betrayed: WEDO’s New Book Carries Women’s Reports on How Governments Have Failed to Act on the BPFA,” Women in Action (v.1, 2005);
- Merchant, Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World (Rosenberg, 1992);
- Women’s Environment and Development Organization, wedo.org.