Africa has, for a long time, been plagued with unending challenges: a shrinking land base, effects of climate change, waste dumping, inadequate energy, loss of bio-diversity, illegal fishing, water scarcity, disease volatility and institutional challenges.
As a way to address these shortcomings, the Organization of African Unity, now called the African Union (AU), declared the third of March “Africa Environment Day” in 2002. In 2012, in recognition of Wangari Maathai’s work, the third of March is now the “Africa Environment and Wangari Maathai Day”.
Who was Wangari Maathai?
Prof. Wangari Maathai was the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate winner for her efforts advocating for human rights and environmental conservation. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1997 in Kenya where she aimed to encourage women to confront the realities of environmental change instead of victimizing themselves. She believed that democracy, peace and the environment have a connection that must be protected. Wangari believed that women must be given opportunities and that women’s rights are an obligation and not just an idea.
The 2016 Africa Environmental and Wangari Maathai Day
The theme of the 2016 celebrations was “Strengthening Women’s Rights over Natural Resources” in line with African Union’s main theme of the year, “The African year of Human Rights with particular focus on Women’s Rights”. The African Union dedicated the first and second of March, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to a Forum where a group of female environmentalists, both in government and civil society, were hosted to formulate workable recommendations that can move Africa forward in terms of environmental protection.
Women in Africa are renowned for being custodians of nature. They are continuously at the forefront of meeting family needs like providing food through agriculture, fetching water and firewood for fuel. However, despite all the work and effort they put into production, protecting and conserving nature through their varying responsibilities, they are not sufficiently supported.
The prevalence and normalcy of gender inequality in many parts of Africa encourages differentiation in work, meaning that it is rare to see women in concrete positions of leadership and management.
Accordingly, women’s rights to natural resources like land, water, plants and animals are merely domestic. Women cannot sufficiently utilise these resources beyond their homes which condemns them to small businesses and poverty.
This points to the limitations unfairly placed on women, including limited access to land, unfavorable policies on land ownership, inability to inherit, cultural constraints, gender biases, inadequate structures to capacitate women and lack of independence. Women’s lack of tenure to the very land they take care of is an absurdity because land use determines the wellbeing of the environment and the effects of climate change.
Therefore, at a time when the African Union is focusing on women and when the issue of climate change is pertinent, it is essential that women are empowered as more important curators of the land.
Letty Chiwara, the UN Women representative to the AU, UNECA and Ethiopia at the Forum emphasized that if women’s participation and ownership of natural resources is increased, then the environment has a chance. She said that Sustainable Development Goals 5 on gender, and 12 on sustainable consumption and production, are interlinked. Women play a key role in production, environmental conservation and agriculture, as recognized in the 2015 Paris Agreement preamble stating that whenever the environment is affected, women and children suffer the most.
Further, according to the FAO, empowering women has shown to increase productivity since women play the bigger role in production. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 60-80% of food is produced by women.
Therefore, to overcome these challenges, the participants in the Forum came up with formidable recommendations on the fourth of March 2016. It was agreed that, if adhered to, the recommendations would go a long way not only to improve the lives of women, but to greatly impact the environment and enable Prof. Wangari’s legacy to live on. Some of the recommendations included the following:
- That women should unify and create networks within which they would be able to share knowledge and improve upon each other’s way of life. For instance, 19 countries in Africa have shea butter but only three countries are getting substantial benefits from it.
- That previous successful models should be propagated and adapted by other countries or communities that face the same challenges.
- Women should be trained within different communities to be advocates for the women’s rights as enshrined in the AU Protocol on Rights of Women in Africa.
- Female local initiatives should be trained to harness support from the climate fund and take advantage of the global and political support for women.
- Social accountability by government and NGO structures should be mandatory to enable close monitoring and proper implementation of policies protecting women and environment.
- Social inclusion should be a paramount consideration so as to encourage the participation of women.
- Women should be sensitized on all recourses available to them when their rights, especially to land and equality are abused.
- Women’s rights on the governing of land, forestry and fisheries and including women and girls’ access to these resources must be implemented.
As such, women must be supported economically, socially and politically to enjoy their rights to gender equality. Women should equally be able to inherit, acquire, own and independently use land, jointly or not, and also actively participate in management and leadership as a way to decide their own affairs.
Mrs. Tumusiime Rhoda, the Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the AU, implored all leaders and women to respect, promote and ensure equality as a means to reduce the gender disparity. She concluded by saying, “if women are the fillers of the land, then they deserve to be protected”.