Women and the Environment

Posted: 20 May 2004

Author: UNEP and WEDO, 2004, (to purchase see details below).

Women are the world's great unsung conservationists, often exceeding men in their knowledge and nurturing of domestic and wild plants and animals, according to a new publication by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Cover: Women and the Environment
Cover: Women and the Environment
Women, especially in developing countries, are the farmers, the feeders and the carers in their communities relying on an intimate understanding of nature to fulfil their many and varied roles.

Women are also the primary providers of water. In the mountain areas of East Africa, women may expend close to a third of their calorie intake in collecting and supplying this precious resource.

Female members of a community often bear the brunt of a natural disaster, such as famine or drought, and are the ones who shoulder the responsibility for keeping offspring alive.

Sole breadwinners

"In pastoral societies, when cattle die, men migrate to new pastures or shift to a different location where they pursue other activities. Women and children may also leave but generally as a group to hunt famine foods as well as pods and other tree products to sell in distant markets," says the book, published in association with the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO).

"Other scenarios that result from loss of livestock involve men turning to idling, gambling and drinking cheap brew, leaving women as the sole breadwinners," it adds.

The book, drawing on research by numerous individuals and organizations including UNEP and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, contains numerous examples of how women or women's groups deal with environmental and development threats. For instance in:

Thailand Studies of 60 women-managed kitchen gardens in Thailand have listed 230 different vegetable and other species, many of which had been rescued from a neighboring forest before it was cleared.

Pakistan 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.

Sierra Leone A study there found that women could name 31 uses of trees on fallow land and in forests whereas men could only name eight.

Kenya Here men's traditional knowledge is actually declining as a result of formal schooling and emigration whereas women, given less access to formal education, are retaining the local indigenous knowledge and in many cases acquiring the men's.

The Green Belt Movement in Kenya, conceived by the 50,000-strong National Council for Women and launched in 1997, has founded a network of 6,000 village nurseries and led to the planting of some 20 million trees in order to combat desertification and erosion.

IranIn 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.

Mexico 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.

China 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.

Philippines The Green Health programme, set up by the University of the Philippines Los Banos Institute of Biological Sciences, is teaching women (and men) in communities on the north-eastern tip of Mindanano, to use herbal plants to cure ailments and to help them to earn income.

Commenting on the book, Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: "It is clear from this publication, that women have a central role as custodians of local and indigenous knowledge and as conservators of the natural world. It also clear that their role and their 'know-how' is often undervalued and ignored. Indeed, all too often women are treated as second class citizens with less rights and a reduced status in respect to men. It is high time that national and international policies reflect gender differences and give far greater weight to the empowerment of women," he added.

The book, Women and the Environment, is available to download on-line at www.unep.org or to order at EarthPrint.