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Women Pave the Path toward a Sustainable Future

Posted on: Sunday, July 31, 2011

Keywords: Environmental Justice, Sudan, Africa, Nicaragua, Latin America and Caribbean, Kenya

A version of this article was published in Effectius

It is easy to feel hopeless about the fate of our planet when we think about the inter-related crises of resource exploitation, industrial agriculture, pollution, deforestation, fossil fuel consumption and more. Yet, in communities across the globe, grassroots women leaders are already implementing solutions to these crises.

As an international women’s rights organization, MADRE works with women around the world who recognize that the effects of climate change are not gender-neutral. Developing a gender analysis—an understanding of the ways that men and women are differently affected by climate change and respond differently to its threats—is increasingly crucial to saving lives, saving resources, and quite possibly, saving the life of the planet. Women around the globe are key actors in ensuring their communities’ ability to cope with and adapt to climate change, and they are refusing to give into despair.

It is widely recognized that poor people are being hit first and worst by impacts of climate change, including food shortages, droughts, floods and disease. Fewer people acknowledge that as a result of gender discrimination, the majority of poor people worldwide - nearly 70 percent - are women. In turn, poverty and gender discrimination interact with climate change to produce deadly results for women and girls.

As the majority of smallholder famers, women’s livelihoods depend more on the ecosystems that are threatened by climate change. When weather patterns change and the crops and livestock that women depend on are destroyed, women often lack the resources and education to open other avenues to support their families. 

In addition, nearly three times as many women as men are killed in climate disasters such as hurricanes and floods. Around the world, women are disproportionately affected in the aftermath of the same disasters. This has been evidenced in Somalia, where women and girls are being raped as they walk for miles along dangerous roads to escape the famine; in Pakistan, where a lack of access to reproductive health services endangered thousands of women in the aftermath of the floods; and in Nicaragua, where women heads-of-household were overlooked in aid distribution following Hurricane Mitch.

Women Hold the Key to Solutions

Most approaches to tackling the threats of climate change focus on scientific and technological aspects of the problem, ignoring its social impact. Both the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change neglect to even mention gender. The more recent Copenhagen Accord failed to legally bind any of its signatories to an effective agreement, and at last year’s climate change conference in Mexico, Indigenous women activists were relegated to the outskirts of the luxury resorts within which international leaders and officials debated these women’s futures.

When we approach climate change from the perspective of women, we see the ways that women are made vulnerable to threats associated with climate change, and that women's skills and leadership are crucial for people's survival and recovery. Therefore, defending the full range of women's human rights within the context of addressing climate change is essential both to protecting women themselves and to cultivating their capacity for leadership - on which so many lives depend.

In communities across the globe, women are on the cutting edge of sustainable alternatives to climate change and environmental degradation. Their hard work points to the solutions that we all need now.

Clean Water in Kenya

In Kenya, the grassroots organization, the Indigenous Information Network (IIN), is pioneering improved ways to conserve and manage water in rural communities. Women there know well the threats they face: droughts intensifying Kenya’s water crisis, women losing hours each day in the search for water and diseases spreading when scarce water supplies are shared with livestock. As famine spreads through the region, these dangers are taking more and more lives.

Women are on the forefront of creating solutions. The Indigenous Information Network facilitates the repair of water tanks and pipelines to provide clean water for Indigenous women and families in multiple communities. They also built separate water troughs for their animals, to prevent the spread of disease and control soil erosion around water sources. Crucially, they involve the input and leadership of Indigenous women at every step in the process, further empowering their voices.

Seeds for Life in Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, Indigenous women on the north Atlantic coast have spearheaded the Harvesting Hope Project, which trains women in small-scale organic farming and livestock management.

Through a seed bank, women are now able to cultivate, save and share local, organic seeds from one growing season to the next. The program emphasizes sustainable land use and safeguards traditional Indigenous knowledge of how to conserve biodiversity and natural resources. The women also organized local farmers markets so that they can earn income from the produce they grow.

Through knowledge passed down through generations, Indigenous women in Nicaragua possess invaluable expertise about ecosystem management and the preservation of local biodiversity. This knowledge, rooted in small-scale and local projects, is increasingly recognized as the key to reversing the impacts of climate change generated by industrialization and carbon emissions.

Collective Organizing in Sudan

Women farmers in Sudan are often the backbone of their community, struggling to ensure food for their families in the midst of drought and unpredictable seasons triggered by climate change. But discrimination against women by the Ministry of Agriculture often denies them access to the seeds, tools and training that could help them boost their harvests.

With the grassroots organization Zenab for Women in Development, these women banded together. They formed Sudan’s first and only Women Farmers Union, sharing resources and combining their efforts to raise harvests that sustain their communities. They have built a cooperative model of land management and crop harvesting, and the ripple effects of their success have ensured that their communities thrive. With income from their harvests, women have been able to send their daughters to school, hire a teacher so women can learn to read, and even install electricity in one of the villages where they operate.

Moreover, these women have demonstrated that small-scale farming efforts, managed collectively, are a viable means of providing food for communities. Unlike giant agricultural corporations shipping grain to Africa, these women farm without fossil fuels and harmful chemicals. Their sustainable agricultural practices are critical to meeting the twin challenges of feeding people and protecting the planet.


These are local solutions that change women’s lives. We must learn from these successes. They show us that the path to a sustainable, greener future is already being charted – by Indigenous women in rural Kenya, by small-scale organic farmers in Nicaragua and by unionized women in Sudan. They show us that women in communities hold the key to solutions that we all need.

By Yifat Susskind, MADRE Executive Director

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