After Maathai: Women Taking Charge to Save the Environment

How does the legacy of the late Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai live on?

September 28, 2011

How does the legacy of the late Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai live on?

The recent death of Wangari Maathai is a serious blow to environmental efforts worldwide. The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize recipient was renowned for her work with the Nairobi-based Green Belt Movement, an organization dedicated to environmental conservation and women’s rights.

Fortunately, however, her example has inspired thousands of women around the world to actively engage in efforts to protect the environment — an issue that is as urgent now as ever.

The growing worldwide demand for resources is threatening the world’s environmental health to an unprecedented extent. There is widespread agreement that unless new policies are put in place, this situation could have devastating implications for human development.

At a global level, there is a growing awareness of the need for, and importance of, making women contribute to the identification of environmental problems, as well as to the planning of activities focused on the sustainable development of their communities.

Because of their roles as home managers, economic providers and mothers, women are especially susceptible to health problems and hazards stemming from the environment. In particular, the reproductive system of pregnant women is especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants. Every step in the reproductive process can be altered by toxic substances in the environment that may increase the risk of abortion, birth defects, fetal growth retardation and peri-natal death.

Although women have long been considered passive recipients of aid rather than active participants in development, their role is crucial both to the economies of developing countries and to the future of the environment. In that regard, as environmental educators and motivators for change, women are key agents in fostering a more sustainable and healthy development of the planet.

A world survey on public attitudes on the environment sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program showed that women, when compared with men, are more likely to choose a lower standard of living with fewer health risks rather than a higher standard of living with more health risks.

In countries throughout the world, women are leading the way in protecting the environment. For example, in China, Mrs. Meig Ng has been an active advocate for environmental causes. She is a firm believer in do-it-yourself environmentalism. She has participated in several environmental policy development and community mobilization projects and was elected to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Global 500 Roll of Honor in 2000.

In Nepal, Saraswoti Bhetwal has been able to survive as a farmer thanks to techniques learned at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), such as roof water harvesting, drip irrigation, composting and leveling terraces. In Latin America, indigenous women have become more active in the use of poverty reduction and sustainable development strategies.

In Russia, scientist Olga Speranskaya successfully worked with the NGO community in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia and transformed them into a potent, participatory force working to identify and eliminate the Soviet legacy of toxic chemicals in the environment.

Throughout Latin America, women of all social classes are participating in environmental protection projects. After Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in 1998, women from the indigenous communities created the Comité de Emergencia Garifuna (Emergency Committee Garifuna). The Committee organized seed banks for food security, planted fruit trees to limit erosion of coastal areas and helped relocate communities from high-risk areas. The organization also incorporated reforestation and the cultivation of medicinal plants into its activities.

In Bolivia, the Centro de Mujeres Candelaria and its political platform, called the Permanent Forum of Aymara Women, organized women into grassroots groups that draw on ancestral knowledge and practices to predict hazardous events and teach how to protect their farms and the food they provide. They also organized community banks, craft centers and women’s education centers.

In addition to women assuming hands-on roles at the grassroots level, the increasing participation of women in think tanks and in environmental training activities is allowing them to educate both the public and policymakers about the critical link between women, the use of natural resources and sustainable development.

There is growing evidence that women in several countries around the world are taking central roles in the grassroots environmental movement. And there is an increasing recognition that development policies that do not involve women and men alike will not be successful in the long run. In this realization, the legacy of Wangari Maathai lives on.

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Takeaways

Women are key agents in fostering a more sustainable and healthy development of the planet.

There is an increasing recognition that development policies that do not involve women and men alike will not be successful in the long run.

Women, when compared with men, are more likely to choose a lower standard of living with fewer health risks rather than a higher standard of living with more health risks.