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Celebrating Women As Custodians of the Environment

By Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, on the occasion of International Women’s Day 8 March 2005

By Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, on the occasion of International Women’s Day 8 March 2005

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.

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.

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 frontline, 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.

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 south-east 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.

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 frontline 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 ten-year review of the UN World Conference on Women which was held in Beijing, China, in 1995.

Its findings, to be released on 11 March, 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.

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 8 March, 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.

Friday 11 Mar 2005
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