Credit: Max Orenstein // Clinton Foundation

Why African Environmentalism Needs Women at the Helm

By Wanjira Mathai, Director, Partnership on Women’s Entrepreneurship in Renewables (wPOWER) Hub at the Wangari Maathai Institute

Nearly 40 years ago, women in the Kenyan countryside reported a troubling phenomenon: their streams were drying up, their crops were failing, and they were being forced to travel farther and farther away from their villages to gather wood for fuel, building and fencing. Deforestation, in short, was threatening their livelihoods.

Today their story has become all too common. As climate change and environmental degradation continue to present an urgent global challenge for all of us, women and girls often face the brunt of the consequences. The Full Participation Report, a recent study by the Clinton Foundation’s No Ceilings Initiative analyzing more than 20 years of data on the status of women and girls around the world, reveals that as primary caregivers, small holder farmers, or stewards of our natural resources, women are often unduly impacted by environmental challenges. The burden is especially acute in Africa, where women and girls can spend hours a day collecting water and firewood in one of the regions most vulnerable to the consequences of our warming climate.

As climate change and environmental degradation continue to present an urgent global challenge for all of us, women and girls often face the brunt of the consequences.

And yet, even as global warming manifests in droughts and famines in Africa and across the world, women’s voices are largely missing from discussions about these challenges — only 16 percent of countries report that they have considered the importance of gender in UN Framework Convention on Climate Change national communications.

This year, on Earth Day and beyond, let’s change the conversation and recognize not only the impact of environmental degradation on women and girls, but their unique potential to help us effectively put up a fight.

The Green Belt Legacy

In Africa, this movement to engage women in environmental stewardship has been long in the making. My mother, Wangari Maathai, proudly led this work for nearly 40 years, offering stipends to women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees — trees that could bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood and generate income. That project, which became known as the Green Belt Movement and earned my mother the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, has led not just to the planting of some 51 million trees and the restoration of rivers, watersheds, and rural landscapes across Kenya, but the transformation of the lives of nearly one million women and their families who protect their natural environment, stand up for their rights and protect the common resources of their communities. And the work continues today, with the help of partners such as the Clinton Climate Initiative’s Forestry program

Women and the Future of Afro-Environmentalism

Today I am proud to carry on my mother’s work as Chair of the Green Belt Movement and Director of the Partnership for Women Entrepreneurs in Renewables (wPOWER) Hub at the Wangari Maathai Institute of the University of Nairobi. As we continue our tree planting efforts, we have opened a new front– the adoption of renewable energy technologies such as clean cookstoves, solar lanterns and bamboo biomass.

The effects of deforestation and environmental degradation have meant a loss of critical resources and an overreliance on those that further harm our climate. Today, around the world nearly 3 billion people cook over open fires using wood as well as materials that emit dangerous gases — a practice that pollutes the air they and their children breathe and causes the deaths of some 4 million people a year.

WATCH: See how open-fire cooking poses serious risks for millions of women, children, and the environment

Fortunately, cleaner cooking and lighting technologies exist that can both drastically improve the health conditions of women and their families and reduce dependency on unsustainable sources of fuel. The challenge now is to get these technologies to communities that need them — a challenge where once again women play a central and critical role in developing the solution.

In January 2013, we formed the wPOWER Partnership Project, a collaboration between the U.S. State Department and the Wangari Maathai Institute to empower more than 8,000 women clean energy entrepreneurs across East Africa, Nigeria and India to deliver clean energy access. With the support of organizations such as the Green Belt Movement, and many others, we are aiming to bring clean technologies to some 3.5 million households.

Two decades after my mother sparked a movement, I’m encouraged to see other African women engaged in the critical work of creating a more sustainable planet. Women like Charity Migwi, a Kenyan-born University of Pennsylvania student who has committed through the Clinton Global Initiative University to divert food from landfills that is thrown away by farmers, export companies, and supermarkets to feed poor students and reduce waste in Kibera and Mathare slums in Kenya. Charity will approach supermarkets, exporters, and farmers to collect edible food donations that would have gone to waste.

Two decades after my mother sparked a movement, I’m encouraged to see other African women engaged in the critical work of creating a more sustainable planet.

This incredible growing network of organizations, individuals, and governments dedicated to the empowerment of women through environmental protection efforts has helped to continue a legacy I know my mother would be proud of. And I hope that in a season replete with energy-related conferences that meet in Africa this year, including May’s CGI Middle East & Africa Meeting , leaders keep women and girls top of mind in their solutions to environmental challenges. It’s encouraging to see that more African women are represented among these gatherings of experts and influencers; I hope it’s a trend that continues.

There is an African proverb that says the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the next best time is today. We cannot change the missed opportunities of the past, but we can indeed plan for the future. With women in the lead, I know we can succeed in helping the next generation live the very best versions of themselves in a safer, cleaner and more peaceful world.


About the Author

Wanjira Mathai is the Director, Partnerships on Women’s Entrepreneurship in Renewables (wPOWER) Hub, Wangari Maathai Institute. She previously directed International Affairs at Green Belt Movement, which was founded by her mother, the late Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai. There she managed International outreach and resource mobilization. For 6 years prior to joining GBM, Mathai worked as Senior Program Officer at the Carter Presidential Center (USA), monitoring and evaluating disease eradication programs. She Chairs the Green Belt Movement and is a Board member of WMI, Wangari Mathai Foundation and Resonate. She is also a World Future Councilor, Advisory Council Member (Global Cookstoves Alliance), Member of the Global Restoration Council and Member of the Earth Charter International Council. Mathai is Kenyan and a graduate of Hobart & William Smith College. She earned graduate degrees in Public Health and Business from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and Goizueta School of Business.

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