Empower Women for a Sustainable Africa: 2015 Africa Environment Day/ Wangari Maathai Day

Aisha Karanja and Wanjira Mathai of the Green Belt Movement plant a tree at the ICRAF Campus, 4 March, 2015. Photo by D. Odhiambo/ICRAF

Aisha Karanja and Wanjira Mathai of the Green Belt Movement plant a tree at the ICRAF Campus, 4 March, 2015. Photo by D. Odhiambo/ICRAF

“You do not need a diploma to plant a tree.”

This was Professor Wangari Maathai’s smart response to people who were questioning her decision to train illiterate rural women on how to grow and nurture trees.

To celebrate Africa Environment Day and Wangari Maathai Day, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), in collaboration with the African Union Commission (AUC), the Government of Kenya, the Green Belt Movement (GBM) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), hosted a day-long Women and Environment Forum. The event at ICRAF Headquarters in Nairobi, 4 March, brought together over 60 participants from 6 countries.

Opening the Forum, ICRAF Director-General Dr Anthony Simons pointed out that enabling land policies are key to sustainable environmental management.

“In Africa, over 72% of farmers have less than a hectare of land, and most of this land is unadjudicated. Lack of land tenure makes it difficult for people to invest in long-term endeavours such as growing trees,” he said.

Wanjira Mathai, chair of the Green Belt Movement, said the partnership between the Green Belt Movement and ICRAF goes back a long way, while Aisha Karanja executive director of the GBM said the view of this organization is that women have agency to shape their natural environment.

“We prefer to see women as change agents rather than as the victims they are often portrayed to be,” said Karanja.

The AU Commission was represented by Almami Dampha and colleagues, while UNEP was represented by Jean Jacob Sahou, Regional development coordinator for UNEP’s Regional Office for Africa; Trang Nguyen, Coordinator GGEO; and Elizabeth Migongo-Bake, Gender Coordinator and Programme Officer.

“Across Africa competition for natural resources, population explosion, and other factors are having a catastrophic impact on women. The African Union Assembly adopted a Gender Policy and Action Plan in 2008, which calls for specific and concrete action to promote gender equity and women’s empowerment,” said Dampha.

Speaking on behalf of UNEP, Sahou said Africa faces many environmental challenges— including soil degradation and natural resource depletion—which need the empowerment of women to resolve.

“UNEP is engaged in multiple efforts to inform decision making at different levels, including the improvement of environmental governance in favour of vulnerable groups, mainly women, refugees and displaced persons, in order to reduce their burden from environmental degradation,” he said.

Jonathan Muriuki, Kenya Country Representative for ICRAF, cited studies that show that men usually have the overall authority over tree products that are considered to have high financial returns, such as timber.

“While women bear most of the work of tree and forest management, they receive back a disproportionately small portion of the benefits,” he said.

Jonathan Muriuki , Kenya Country Representative for ICRAF, leads the tree-planting at ICRAF on 4 March 2015. Photo by Daniel Odhiambo/ICRAF

Jonathan Muriuki , Kenya Country Representative for ICRAF, leads the tree-planting at ICRAF on 4 March 2015. Photo by Daniel Odhiambo/ICRAF

More equitable rights to land, and better access to high quality tree seeds and seedlings, knowledge, capital, markets and labor would all boost women’s ability to fully engage in sustainable natural resource management, raising agricultural productivity, women’s income, food security, and environmental sustainability.

Ms Trang Nguyen of UNEP said the Global Gender and Environment Outlook, to be released by UNEP in 2016, is using social science information as well as gender sensitive indicators in order to review gender–environment links and guide policy actions towards gender equality.

“You do not need a diploma to plant a tree.”
—Wangari Maathai

Gender inequality is a leading cause of low agricultural productivity, the forum heard. Ms Margaret Egesa, who spoke on behalf of the Environment Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, presented the Kenya Government’s Gender Mainstreaming Strategy And Action Plan, 2014-2017, which has a strong focus on natural resource management.

Dr Asa Torkelsson, Advisor for Economic Empowerment at the UN Women Regional Office for East and Southern Africa, said development cannot be achieved unless we change the rules of the game. “UN Women is currently costing, in collaboration with UNEP, the gender gap in agriculture, to demonstrate the GDP that is foregone by not having gender equality.”

Green Belt Movement Board members Monica Opole (L) and Prof Vertistine Mbaya at the Women and Environment Forum, 4 March 2015. Photo by Daniel Odiambo/ICRAF

Green Belt Movement Board members Monica Opole (L) and Prof Vertistine Mbaya at the Women and Environment Forum, 4 March 2015. Photo by Daniel Odiambo/ICRAF

Participants dealt with many key themes related to gender and and natural resource management,including

  • Microfinance to empower women
  • Education of boy and girl children to overturn practices and stereotypes that hold women and girls back
  • Training of women in natural resource management,
  • Supporting women to enter and stay in decision-making positions, and
  • Sensitizing communities on gender.

Unbowed by her many detractors, Wangari Maathai, through the GreenBelt Movement, mobilized and empowered grassroots communities to plant over 35 million trees, returning tree cover to and restoring degraded landscapes in many parts of Kenya. This work, which drew the connection between tree cover and peace, won Professor Maathai numerous awards, including the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the first received by an African woman, for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Maathai passed away in 2011, in Nairobi.

At the close of the forum, Aisha Karanja challenged everyone to find “the little thing” they could do towards Empowering Women for Sustainable Natural Resource Management, the theme of the Forum.

See: A new documentary Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

See Press release: Empowering Women for Sustainable Natural Resource Management: Women and Environment Forum 2015

Related storiess:

Positive action on gender supports sustainable development

Climate smart agriculture must be farmer-smart, gender-smart and equity-smart too

Integrating gender and social perspectives in climate research and programme development

Study challenges gender assumptions in tree planting

Related resources:

http://www.worldagroforestry.org/africa-food

Kiptot, E. Franzel, S. 2014. Increasing women’s participation in and benefits from agroforestry in Africa ICRAF Policy Brief no. 26 Nairobi, Kenya World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) 8pp.

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Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences (bels.org) and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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