Does Social Development for Women Impact Environmental Health? A Cross-national Study


Women’s status in society, benefits granted, and access to resources provided by governmental agencies, can impact the well-being of the environment and public health at the national level. There is a marked scarcity of research in the literature on environmental performance of countries directly affecting human health and the link between women’s social development and environmental health. This study aims at executing a cross-country study to examine the effects of social development for women on environmental health by incorporating different variables from World Bank and Environmental Performance Index. The main objective of the study is to empirically test the effects of different components of women’s social development practices on environmental health performance of countries and examine if different country clusters by income, i.e., high income, upper middle income, lower middle income, and low income, reveal different results in terms of determining environmental health. Multiple linear regression models were employed to test the eleven hypotheses on a sample of 163 countries. Empirical results show that environmental health performance at the country level is significantly influenced by women’s social development dimensions such as unemployment in female labor force in the case of high income countries, vulnerable female employment in upper middle income and low income countries, HIV prevalence in females in upper and lower middle income countries, and females’ progression to secondary school in low income countries. A combined country analysis of the effects of women’s social development on environmental health, however, shows significant effects of females’ primary school completion, HIV prevalence, vulnerable employment and contraceptive prevalence as predictor variables for environmental health. These findings provide useful theoretical and policy implications for women’s empowerment and social development initiatives.


The rapid increase in problems arising from d e s t r u c t i o n o f n a t u r a l r e s o u r c e s , r a p i d industrialization, urbanization, and pollution caused by humans, need immediate solutions; social empowerment of women may be the key. Sustainable growth at country specific and global levels highly depends on women’s social development such as getting education, joining the labor force, and receiving the necessary health treatments. The female population, however, is one of the most underutilized resources in the world (OECD, 2008) that needs instant attention of the researchers and policy makers. In fact, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) publication Gender and sustainable development: Maximising the economic, social and environmental role of women, currently, “the female half of the world’s human capital is undervalued and underutilized the world over… Better use of the world’s female population could increase economic growth, reduce poverty, enhance societal well-being, and help ensure sustainable development in all countries” (p.32) (OECD, 2008). In this study, we aim to investigate whether better social opportunities and development for the female population of the nations could in fact impact sustainable development. More specifically, we examine whether social development for women could have an effect on the well-being of the environmental health conditions of a country.

Sustainable development requries the healthy development of the countries, that is, development without impacting the environment and human health. Human health is determined by a broad variety of external and internal factors. These factors include individual behaviors, the quality of genetic, quality and accessibility of healthcare, and the wide-ranging external environment such as the quality of water, air and living conditions (Hernandez and Blazer, 2006). Today, the significant and detrimental effects of environmental factors on human health are accepted by many (e.g., Iles, 1997). In fact, in many parts of the world, it is easy to see that environmental factors such as pollution and degradation are being increasingly responsible for ill-health of the world population (WHO, 1997; UNDP, 1998). Rapidly industrialized societies generate a wide variety of pollutants and wastes that affect human health adversely, and cause decline or loss of biological diversity. In many cases, destroyed habitats negatively affect the quality of living conditions of human communities. For instance, millions of people are constantly exposed to unnecessary physical and chemical hazards in their living environment and work place. According to WHO (2012), more than one billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and more than three billion people have access to water that lacks even minimally acceptable sanitation requirements. Tuberculosis causes deaths of three million people every year, and at any given time, 20 million are affected by it. Hundreds of millions suffer from sicknesses caused by poor nutrition (Yassiet al., 2001; Moeller, 2005). All these and many more negative impacts of deteriorated environmental goods on people’s lives help us to infer that the health of millions of people around the world highly depends on their access to unaltered environmental goods such as clean air and uncontaminated water. In fact today, a wide range of domestic as well as international bodies such as the World Bank, World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations (UN), recognize the associations between environmental conditions and human health (Iles, 1997).

According to the World Health Organization, environmental health means “those aspects of the human health and disease that are determined by factors in the environment.” It addresses all the external factors (e.g. physical, chemical, and biological) impacting an individual and all the related factors impacting behaviors of the individual. Environmental health includes the evaluation and control of these external factors that can potentially affect human health (WHO, 2011). Over the last four decades, the scope of environmental health issues has expanded significantly, from a narrow focus which simply takes into account refuse and sewage, to consideration of increasingly widespread and multifaceted phenomena that involves many connections between different social, economic, ecological, and political factors. Given the greater visibility of impacts, the kinds of environmental problems that cause direct effects on human health such as air, water pollution or waste disposal, are more readily recognized as environmental health problems. Additionally, basic environmental goods (e.g. water, soil), quality and accessibility have been recognized as the main sources of environmental health problems (Iles, 1997). Even though all of these aforementioned problems can be seen as infrastructure development issues, which are solvable through scientific and technological advancements, nowadays there is an ever increasing concern about environmental health issues and acknowledgement that they cause broader public health problems that need immediate solutions. Certainly, coming up with a solution could be possible by finding the potential contributors of environmental health. This way, it would be possible to understand how the environmental health of a country or a region changes over time, and how communities can either adapt to these changes or alter and fix them with the help of governments.

Previous studies related to environmental conditions focus on the environment in general. Most of these studies have shown that economic development and environmental degradation of a country are closely connected (e.g., Husted, 2005; Mendelsohn, 1994). Although scholars have argued that social and economic development are important factors in determining the level of environmental performance (e.g., Grafton and Knowles, 2004; Husted, 2005, Park et al., 2007; Peng and Lin, 2009), none of these studies have tried to compare and evaluate the relationship of social development of women on environmental health. Herein lays the importance of empirically determining the significance of social development of women on environmental health conditions. The purpose of this research is to provide some modest initial steps in the search for greater understanding of the statistical relationship between elements of women’s social development and environmental health. A quantitative analysis of women’s social development is not an easy task, mainly because social development is itself a complex concept. In this paper, we take World Bank’s social development indicators as a base to capture social development of women and employ eleven parameters for our analysis. In addition, we include country clusters from World Bank to control for economic development, as well as environmental health variables to complete the statistical analyses.

Given its theoretical significance and practical relevance, the mechanisms linking women’s social development such as educational attainment and labor participation and national environmental health (i.e.impacts on human health) deserve systematic and in-depth analysis. Specifically, this study attempts to answer the following research questions: (1) Does social development of the female population at the national level affect the environmental health of a country? (2) Does the level of economic development of the country moderate the impact of the effects of women’s social development on environmental health? In the following section, we first develop a set of eleven hypotheses, and then test these hypotheses on a sample of 163 countries.

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