New UN book lauds women’s key role in quest for sustainable development

20 May 2004

Women are the world’s great unsung conservationists, often outpacing men in their knowledge and nurturing of domestic and wild plants and animals, and it is thanks to them that many species survive while men sometimes turn to idling, gambling and drinking, according to a new United Nations book released today.

The book, Women and the Environment published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), highlights the key role women play, especially in developing countries where they 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, particularly in developing countries, are often in the front line in terms of overcoming poverty, managing the land and waterways and sustaining their communities,” UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said in remarks on the launching of the book at the third session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at UN Headquarters in New York.

“During times of stress and insecurity, it is generally the women who 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,” he added.

Noting women’s central role as custodians of local and indigenous knowledge, Mr. Toepfer said 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, published in association with the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), stresses that in pastoral societies, when cattle die, men migrate while women and children generally leave to hunt famine foods as well as pods and other tree products to sell in distant markets. “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.

Examples cited of women’s key role include Pakistan where women in the Kanak Valley can readily identify 35 medicinal plants; Sierra Leone where women can name 31 uses of trees on fallow land and in forests whereas men could only name eight; and Kenya where men’s traditional knowledge is actually declining as a result of formal schooling and emigration while women, given less access to formal education, are retaining the local indigenous knowledge and in many cases acquiring the men’s.

 

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