The theme for June 17 this year is "Women and Desertification". The theme recognizes the unique role played by women in regions affected by desertification and drought, particularly in rural areas of developing countries.
In many of the dry, agricultural areas of the world, it is traditionally women who devote time and effort to the land. They grow, process, manage and market most of the food and other natural resources that come from the earth. For a long time, women in rural areas have had direct experience with environmental degradation through their daily work. Seeing the problems close at hand has given them valuable knowledge for finding solutions.
Very often women are the poorest of the poor and lack the power and the opportunities to bring about real change. Poor women in the drylands have frequently been conditioned to accept their disadvantaged positions. They are the most affected by desertification, and yet the least empowered to effectively address this challenge. They are often excluded from participation in land conservation and development projects, from agricultural extension work and from policies that directly affect their livelihoods.
Special efforts therefore have to be undertaken to provide women with an enabling environment. To effectively address this global problem, it is of vital importance not only to provide women with technical and financial resources, but also to promote and fully recognize their role as vital dryland stakeholders.
In many countries women are beginning to gain access to land ownership and to take part in decision-making. This is raising their status and giving them a new perspective on changing their lives, society and their environment.
At the international level, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is promoting the participation of women. The convention breaks new ground by enshrining a bottom-up approach in international law. It underlines "the important role played by women" in ensuring implementation of the convention at the field level. The success in combating dryland degradation can be increased if women reach greater participation in researching, planning and decision-making at all levels of implementing the UNCCD.
Women are key to sustainable land management
Desertification has different effects on men and women. The question is no longer that of incorporating women into agricultural management. Women’s empowerment, their wanting to take an active role in processes that affect them, rests at the basis of poverty reduction in desertification-stricken rural areas.
Does it matter for land management whether the decision-maker is a man or a woman? In the 1970s, women groups assumed it did. Their premise was that women would have a special potential for fostering rural development because they worked with natural resources, like water and land, on a daily basis. Yet, rural development projects and food-for-work schemes that targeted women exclusively, only had limited success. It became clear that when countering soil degradation and rural poverty, focusing on women alone would help little if the basic structure of inequality between men and women remained un-addressed.
Desertification, however, has different effects on men and women. This is due to the fact that land degradation directly affects "household tasks" that are traditionally considered to be women’s responsibilities. In areas affected by desertification, women easily spend 4 hours, instead of the normal 1, on collecting water, fuelwood and fodder. Studies undertaken by the FAO show that the working hours of women in some parts of Eritrea harmed by desertification exceed that of men by up to 30 hours per week.
The preamble of the UNCCD refers to the important role played by women in dryland regions. It calls upon signatories to increase awareness and facilitate the active participation of women in policy processes and initiatives relating to desertification. The Convention text of the UNCCD, in particular, stresses the need to increase women’s opportunities to learn about natural resource management.. Literate women are better capable to express themselves, and participate with their expertise in decision-making on land tenure.
A gender-sensitive approach requires a re-thinking and change of unequal structures that surround men and women. Attitudes that deny women opening a bank account, or claiming a leadership position, need to be transformed - also in view of achieving poverty reduction as a Millennium Development Goal. There is still much controversy and insecurity about how traditional practices affect the many roles of women and men in regions suffering from land degradation.
The role of men is equally important here. Men are partners, like women. It is a crucial component of a successful gender-sensitive approach that it addresses all stakeholders "women and men " at the same time.
Wangari Maathai is UN honorary spokeswoman for UNCCD
By planting trees, Wangari Maathai has protected hectars of soil from erosion, has secured sustainable energy supplies for the rural poor, and has safeguarded human rights. After three decades of afforestation, she has been awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her achievements in promoting sustainable development, democracy, and peace. This makes Ms. Wangari Maathai, who also serves as the Kenyan Deputy Minister of the Environment, the first African woman to win the award.
UNCCD and a group of partnering UN agencies including UNEP, UNDP, IFAD, UNESCO, and the World Bank, have invited Maathai to become the visible face of the "Year 2006", the International Year of Deserts and Desertification. The main objective of the year is to increase public awareness on desertification in industrialized countries, while highlighting its social and economic implications, including migration and poverty.
The year is to help propagate the message of the people of the drylands. Maathai's voice commands tremendous respect from all sectors of the global community and will help direct the public eye to a common cause.
Ms. Wangari Maathai succeeded in protecting the global environment, especially soil and water. But more importantly, she strengthened the basis for a holistic and integrated approach to sustainable development. Already in 1977, Wangari Maathai founded the environmental group "Green Belt Movement". At that time, the effects of deforestation started to pose serious problems in Africa. As stated in a United Nations report of 1989, for every 100 trees that were pulled down on the continent, only nine were replanted.
As a result, soil and water quality diminished dangerously in rural areas, hitting the poorest most as they depend on forest wood as an energy source and building material. The Green Belt Movement has reforested more than 10 million trees since, and provided a source of income and environmental education for women and girls from villages across Kenya.
Today, Ms. Wangari Maathai holds a position as a visiting professor at Yale University´s Global Institute for Sustainable Forestry to help advance much-needed knowledge about soil degradation and sustainable land management. She is working to make sure that people do not only protect the environment, but also improve governance.
The Green Belt Movement has been amongst the first NGOs to seek accreditation with the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Accredited in 2001, it promotes the objectives of the Convention by organising indigenous tree planting projects on public lands and environmentally degraded hot spots. The Green Belt Movement also provides training to enhance farmer's knowledge about environmental protection, about local biodiversity of crops and their role in food security.