Empowering Ugandan Girls as Environmental Change Agents

The ‘Road to Paris’, Paris climate talks, or COP 21 (the 21st Session of the Conference of Parties), came to an end on December 11. World leaders gathered to discuss how they and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) are going to move towards a carbon-free, sustainable future, while tackling the current effects of climate change. The negative impacts of climate change have particularly profound consequences for the world’s poor, which consists largely of women and children. Therefore, efforts to boost climate mitigation and adaptation strategies have to involve them not only as the most vulnerable group, but as change agents at the local level through vehicles such as green technology, clean cooking solutions, and energy and environmental entrepreneurship. Girl Up Initiative Uganda realizes that our girls must be exposed to these topics, which were put into perspective not only by our participation in eco-feminist activist spaces around COP 21, but also by our girls’ initiative to construct hand-made cookstoves.

Teaching young people about climate change and how they can combat it in order to secure their future is a form of empowerment, and one that Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU) supports as a means of empowering our women and girls. Climate change is a very real threat that largely affects women and girls as the world’s most vulnerable, partially because on top of all the inequalities they face, they tend to be responsible for household duties that encompass food security, agri-business, water and sanitation, and fuel sources for energy uses like cooking and heating. Protecting the environment has multiple benefits for everyone, but the implications of one activity in particular in relation to the environment tends to have a gender-specific lens — cooking.

Many families in Uganda and parts of the Global South — 3 billion to be more exact — use firewood and cook over open fires, exposing them to various diseases like pneumonia, stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer, and which kills up to 4 million people a year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition, many trees are cut down to produce cooking charcoal, and not all communities havereforestation projects to mitigate climate change or ensure fuel does not run out — often forcing people to spend more time going deeper into the forests to collect firewood. It is important to note that climate change is not restricted to the countryside, but affects people in urban areas too, especially those living in poverty. This is something GUIU sees as becoming increasingly relevant to our mission; as an opportunity for our women to engage economically, and for our girls to influence how their communities can be more environmentally-conscious, and reap the associated health benefits, includingsexual and reproductive health.

On November 19th, some of our Girl Up Club girls participated in a hands-on interactive life skills workshop, where they had an opportunity to make clay cookstoves, and learn about the benefits of using cleaner, more efficient cooking solutions. According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, in Uganda specifically, 97% of the population still uses solid fuels to cook, with 35,255,484 people being affected by HAP or ‘household air pollution’, and 13,213 dying as a result. During the workshop, the girls were taught what advantages these types of stoves had, including offering a better alternative to cooking over an open fire, and of being made from locally-sourced raw materials — -the primary raw material clay, was readily available as the school is located in a swamp area. After molding the stoves, they were put under the sun to dry, then later burnt similarly to the way bricks are made to make them stronger, more durable, and ready for use.

These clay cookstoves are a lot more heat-efficient, less smoky, and use less wood — which makes them less harmful to both the environment, and the health of the girls and their families. They can therefore be easily produced on a larger scale, as an economic empowerment project. Alternatives to firewood such as briquettes, can be also exploredas a means of generating income for the women — -as demonstrated by Ugandan-native Betty Ikanlany, best known as a clean energy champion who uses charcoal briquettes from agri-waste to tackle gender issues.

How can we integrate environmental issues into our gender empowerment programs?

We sat down with GUIU’s SRHR health specialist Namuyimbwa Hajara, to hear her thoughts on how GUIU can formally integrate environmental issues into the adolescent girls’ and women’s empowerment programs:

GUIU: Where did the girls make these clay cookstoves?

Hajara: The girls from St. James Biina Primary School made these cookstoves during a hands-on skills session, and since the surrounding area in Butabika is partially a swamp, it was easy to obtain the clay material.

GUIU: Why do you think it is important for Girl Up Initiative Uganda to take clean cooking solutions into consideration for both the girls and the women in the urban areas of Kampala?

Hajara: I think it’s good too because it’s a hands-on skills that the girls are able to obtain, and this can help boost things like a more entrepreneurial spirit and ability to earn a living, if they make such stoves and other materials in large quantities, especially the women.

GUIU: Do you think GUIU should consider integrating the larger related issue of the environment and climate change into the girls’ education curriculum or Girl Up Club activities?

Hajara: Yes, is important since these girls are the mothers of tomorrow. They should grow up knowing about and being sensitive to the environment, so they are better prepared to preserve it rather than damaging it.

GUIU: How do the families Girl Up Initiative Uganda works with tend to cook? Are many of them on the electricity grid?

Hajara: Many of the families use locally made cookstoves and firewood to cook. Most of the families are not on the electricity grid, and so the girls don’t use electricity to cook. This is why maybe it was even easy for them to engage with the idea of making clay cookstoves, since it’s something used on a large scale, if not an open fire.

The issue of HAP and the environmental health impacts of cooking has continued to gain traction over the past few years; from appendages of large organizations such as UN Foundation, to smaller non-profits like Solar Sister, to locally-based, youth-led initiatives such as Eco-Technologies, one of six finalists at the recent World Bank Climate Change Youth Summit with plans to educate and distribute cookers to Ugandans who use biogas and pumice stones, rather than timber fuel like charcoal and firewood.

GUIU’s co-founder and Deputy Executive Director Kimberly Wolf, recently attended an event in Paris hosted by the Coalition Climate 21, which offered a Zone d’Action Climat (Climate Action Hub), offering programs for citizen’s mobilization including a session on the women’s movement for ecological and climate justice. This is where she had the opportunity to discuss with fellow activists how exactly GUIU can begin to include issues such as climate justice, energy entrepreneurship, and environmental education into its programs.

Women gathered in Paris at the ‘Women’s assembly on system change, not climate change’ COP 21 side event (Image: GUIU)

It became clear at the conference that as feminists it is impossible to ignore the interlinkages between women’s rights and environmental justice. We must all work together to ensure that women and girls voices are heard and that we are educated on climate and ecological changes.

When it comes to cookstoves in particular, there are of course, much more efficient and technically advanced models being manufactured that are superior to clay cookstoves; but this workshop for our girls was a good way to start the conversation. In addition, leadership programs such as GUIU’s flagship adolescent girls program, are a perfect vehicle to instill the environmental values in the decision-makers of tomorrow, as the girls start influencing their communities to be more mindful of issues around on health, resources, and socio-economic opportunities. GUIU recognizes that we must include environmental lessons in our programs, and will continue to brainstorm on how best to accommodate the communities we work with to ensure that no one is left behind as the world moves towards a cleaner, more sustainable and equitable future.

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