Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UNEP

This edition of Our Planet celebrates women, and underlines their unique vulnerability to environment-related health problems, from water and sanitation issues to ones of indoor air pollution.

The special role that women play in the lives of their communities is highlighted in the new UNEP book Women and the Environment, which underlines how they are the unsung heroes of conservation, often outpacing men in their knowledge, and nurturing, of domestic and wild plants and animals. Largely thanks to them many species, some with important drought or pest resistant properties, survive and remain in cultivation.

Intimate understanding
Women, especially in developing countries, are the farmers, feeders and carers in their communities, relying on an intimate understanding of nature. They are also the primary providers of water. In the mountain areas of East Africa, they may expend close to a third of their calorie intake collecting and supplying it.

They often bear the brunt of a natural disaster, such as famine or drought, and shoulder the responsibility for keeping offspring alive. In pastoral societies, men migrate to new pastures when cattle die, or move away to pursue other activities. Women and children may also leave, but generally as a group to hunt famine foods, pods and other tree products to sell in distant markets, says the book. It is published in association with the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) – with financial support from the United Nations Foundation, whose sister body the Better World Fund has generously sponsored this issue of Our Planet.

Front line
Women are often in the front line in terms of overcoming poverty, managing land and waterways, and sustaining communities. During times of stress and insecurity, they must forage further and further for food, water and fuel. During times of plenty, the fields and kitchen gardens they tend are mini-laboratories where domesticated and wild plants and animals are selected and tested for their agricultural and medicinal value.

Studies of 60 kitchen gardens managed by women in Thailand chronicled 230 different vegetable and other species, many rescued from a neighbouring forest before it was cleared. Village women in the Kanak Valley in the Province of Baluchistan, Pakistan, can readily identify 35 medicinal plants they commonly use. They say that the plants ‘grow up with no masters’ – meaning that they have no husbands to boss them around.

Traditional knowledge
A study in Sierra Leone found that women could name 31 uses of trees on fallow land and in forests while men could only name eight. Here men’s traditional knowledge is declining with formal schooling and emigration whereas women are retaining theirs – and often acquiring the men’s.

In Yazd, the ‘desert capital’ of Iran, it is women who have devised novel agricultural methods including producing food in underground tunnels. In southeast Mexico, women keep as many as nine breeds of local hens – as well as ducks and turkeys – in their back gardens, selecting the best to suit local environmental conditions. Thus they are actively conserving genetic diversity and contributing to conservation.

Desertification afflicts up to half of China’s population. In a dry and degraded area 1,000 kilometres west of Beijing women have mobilized communities to plant willows and poplars to halt the deserts and create fertile land for vegetable production.

The role of women and their ‘know-how’ is often undervalued and ignored. All too often they are treated as second-class citizens with fewer rights and lower status than men. It is high time that national and international policies reflected gender differences and gave far greater weight to the empowerment of women.

Gender dimensions
So we must breathe life into the gender dimensions enshrined in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. We must build on the outcomes of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), the 1995 World Conference on Women and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, and cement them at this tenth anniversary of ICPD.

For if we ignore the role of women, all our hopes and aspirations for a better and more stable world will be harder to achieve


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This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Miles to go before we relax | Practical consensus | Power shift | Equally effective | People | Peace of mind, piece of land | The young ones | Fuelling change | At a glance: Women, health and the environment | Aishwarya Rai | Unprecedented opportunity | Books and products | Chemical inheritance | Toxic trespass | First empower | Citizen engagement | Adding feminine perspective | After all ‘nature’ is female... | A unique voice

Complementary issues:
Culture, values and the environment 1996
Poverty, Health and the Environment 2001
World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002
Water, Sanitation, People 2004

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources
Population, waste and chemicals

Timothy E. Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation and former U.S. Senator:
ICPD+10 speech September 2004