INSIGHTS: Celebrating Women as Custodians of the Environment

By Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director UN Environment Programme

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 8, 2005 (ENS) - 2005 is an historic year for the United Nations and an historic one for women.

It will, I believe, go down as the year in which the role of women in respect to the environment and the environment’s role in delivering gender equality moved from the edges into the centre of political life.

In just a few months’ time, a summit level meeting of the UN will take place in New York to review the successes and failures of the Millennium Development Goals.


United Nations Environment Programme head Dr. Klaus Toepfer wrote this article on the occasion of International Women's Day, March 8, 2005. (Photo courtesy )
The eight goals, covering poverty eradication and the supply of drinking water to environment and education, are crucially important for women and girls.

Take the provision of drinking water. In many parts of the developing world, it is women and girls who go out ever day to find this most precious of precious resources. One stark fact, contained in a report written for UNEP’s first Women’s Global Assembly on the Environment better known as the WAVE initiative - Women as the Voice for the Environment.

In the mountain areas of East Africa women can expend close to a third of their daily calories in collecting and supplying water to their homes and communities.


Girls carry buckets of water from a waterhole near Kuluku, Eritrea. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein courtesy WFP)
So we need water not only for healthy rivers, lakes and streams, for agriculture and for industry. We need water so that women can spend more time at home with their families and girls can spend more time at school.

Water and a healthy environment is, therefore, part of the solution for achieving the Goal that relates to universal primary education.

Improved sanitation is also part of this package and part of the gender and environment dimension of the Goals. For it goes to the heart of women’s dignity and influences their enthusiasm to attend school.

Women are also disproportionately affected by natural and weather-related disasters of the kind that are likely to become more frequent if climate change is not curbed.

They are often in the front line, shouldering the responsibility of keeping communities together and offspring alive during times of famine and drought.

In pastoral societies, when cattle die, the men migrate to new pastures leaving the women and children to hunt for "famine foods," pods and tree products.


Honduran women cultivate lettuces in a collective garden in Yamaranguilla state. (Photo by G. Bizzarri courtesy FAO)
Women and girls have a special relationship with the environment in other ways. They are often the custodians of indigenous knowledge and promoters of biodiversity and environmentally-friendly management.

Studies of 60 women-managed kitchen gardens in Thailand have chronicled 230 different vegetable and other species, many of which had been rescued from a neighbouring forest before it was cleared.

Village women in the Kanak Valley, Province of Baluchistan, Pakistan, can readily identify 35 medicinal plants they commonly use. They say that the plants "grow up with no masters," a reference to the fact that the plants have no husbands to boss them around.

In Yazd, known as the "desert capital" of Iran, it is women who have devised novel methods of agricultural production including food production in tunnels constructed underground.

In southeast Mexico, women keep as many as nine breeds of local hens, as well as breeds of ducks, turkeys and broilers in their back gardens selecting the best breeds to suit local environmental conditions. In other words, women are actively conserving the genetic diversity of Mexican breeds and thus contributing to conservation.


Girl carries a basket of bread to market in Sichuan, China. (Photo by Peyton Johnson courtesy FAO)
Desertification afflicts up to half of China’s population. In a dry and degraded area 1,000 km west of Beijing, communities have been mobilized by women to plant willows and poplars to halt the advancing deserts and create fertile land for vegetable production.

So women are in the front line in the quest for sustainable development but have, for too long, been forced into a back-seat role with respect to men.

So it is high time that their contribution was recognized and that time has come.

Currently, at a meeting in New York, delegates are conducting a 10-year review of the UN World Conference on Women which was held in Beijing, China, in 1995.

Its findings, to be released on March 11, will guide the discussions in September at the summit-level review of the Millennium Development Goals.

UNEP has its contribution to make, too. A few weeks ago we held our Governing Council at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. It was attended by delegations from well over 130 countries.

I am delighted to say that, among the many important decisions taken, was a landmark one on environment, gender equality and the empowerment of women.

That this happened owes much to the able and intelligent discussions led by Lena Sommestad, the Swedish Environment Minister and Chair of the Network of Women Environment Ministers, and Wangari Maathai, Deputy Minister of the Environment for Kenya and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner.


Peruvian woman attend a literacy class. (Photo by A. Odoul courtesy FAO)
The decision calls on governments and the international community to mainstream gender equality right across the board from education to policy and programmes including Poverty Reduction Strategies.

International commitments and treaties that affect women should be given special attention. Those include chemical, heavy metals, water and sanitation and human settlements.

Women should enjoy equal access to economic activities, market opportunities, land tenure and natural resources.

Development and environmental policies should specifically address their impact on women.

Meanwhile, UNEP will help young women to take part in environmental meetings and conferences as well as highlight the link between environment and gender equality in our assessments in conflict zones.

International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, is always an important day. I would suggest that in 2005 it should be marked as the year when the WAVE initiative was truly given voice for the sake of women, for the sake of men, for the sake of a healthy, equitable, world.

{Dr. Klaus Toepfer is Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, a position he has held since February 1998. A former German environment minister, he contributed to the success of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. He was an early negotiator for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the establishment of the Global Environment Facility.}