Women as Environmental Change Agents

As we celebrate Earth Day, we would be wise to focus on the role of women as environmental leaders. Investing in women will be critical to addressing the myriad environmental challenges our world faces.
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Today as we celebrate Earth Day, we would be wise to focus on the role of women as environmental leaders. All over the world, women are advancing the green revolution -- from transforming farming in rural Africa, to creating businesses around clean technology in India, to investing in renewable energy.

Whether in promoting conservation, combating climate change, protecting biodiversity and vital ecosystems, securing water access, or reducing indoor air pollution, women are developing and effecting innovative solutions to critical environmental problems.

This should come as no surprise.

Studies show it is women who are often most affected by the increased frequency of extreme weather events wrought by climate change. It is women who frequently spend half their days trekking long distances to collect water and fuelwood, which in conflict settings, increases their vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence, and, in all settings, reduces the amount of time for education, employment, childcare, and other more economically productive activities. It is women who represent the majority of the world's small-holder farmers and who face the disproportionate burden of food insecurity.

Women clearly have a stake in the future of the environment and are taking action.

Take Nobel Prize-winner Wangari Maathai, for example, who launched the Green Belt Movement, which has planted millions of trees in Kenya and transformed women into powerful advocates for their rights, good governance and democracy, and natural resource protection.

Habiba Sarabi, the governor of Bamiyan Province and the first female governor in Afghanistan, created her country's first national park, Band-e Amir, protecting 220 square miles of pristine lakes and limestone canyons. Her work has inspired local communities to join her environmental efforts.

Mary Mavanza from Tanzania has helped hundreds of Tanzanian women start environmentally sustainable businesses through microcredit loans and by providing training in accounting.

Albina Ruiz and her organization, Ciudad Saludable, have for over 20 years helped communities in Peru manage and recycle garbage, leading to cleaner environments, better health for women and children, and small business opportunities. India and other countries are now looking to Peru as a model.

"Sari Squads," groups of women environmental activists in southern Bangladesh, have banded together to form patrols to protect endangered forests from loggers.

Investing in these women and others like them will be critical to addressing the myriad environmental challenges that our world faces.

What should this investment look like?

First, we must ensure that women have an equal seat at the table in decision-making processes that shape environmental policies and natural resource investment decisions at all levels of government. From local village councils, to national planning processes, to international and multilateral development institutions and funds, it is essential that policies and programs be instilled with a spirit of inclusion, innovation, and equal participation of women.

Second, we must invest in women's role in the burgeoning green economy.

Supporting women's entrepreneurship is particularly essential, as World Bank and many other data show that investing in women's small-and-medium-sized businesses is one of the best ways to drive overall GDP growth.

This means supporting the work of groups like the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) of India, a collective of over two million poor women, which is working to adopt small-scale clean technologies, such as clean cookstoves and solar lanterns. In the process, they are protecting the environment and earning livelihoods for themselves by selling, distributing, and repairing the products.

We know that women confront barriers in starting or expanding small-and-medium-sized businesses, such as access to training, networks, finance, technology, and markets, among others. These challenges need to be addressed if women's potential to grow economies and generate green livelihoods is to be fully tapped.

Third, women and girls must be provided with opportunities to further develop knowledge and solutions to environmental challenges. This means that we must invest in girls' and women's educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), including in the environmental sciences.

Currently, too few women and girls are pursuing careers in these fields. For example, women constitute less than 20 percent of the professional energy workforce. We need to do a better job of removing barriers and developing opportunities for women in science through mentoring and by encouraging institutions, both public and private, to support women in science at every level.

As Wangari Maathai once said, "We must find opportunities to make change happen -- we must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist." Today, on Earth Day, we must remember that women are at the frontlines of conservation, and are changing the world for the better. We must find ways to help them succeed.

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