Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Protectors of our Environment

If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a generation. This famous quote aptly explains the potential of positive impact women are capable of contributing to society. Women are known to be better multitaskers and long term planners. When they are economically stable, they spend more resources on improving their family’s hygiene, health, education and on the betterment of their communities. 

By nature, women play the role of protectors of the environment. According to a survey conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme on public attitudes towards environment, women are more likely to choose a lower standard of living with fewer health risks than opt for a higher living standard with greater health risks as compared to men.  

Environmental degradation has and continues to have devastating effects on people’s health and quality of life and women are at the forefront of this battle, especially in the developing world. When women are affected so are their children - a given co-relation. 

Previously, it was considered that women were only passive recipients of aid and had nothing to offer in terms of active participation in the development process. This perspective has undergone a u-turn with the realization that there will be no sustainable development without their inclusion. In fact, some experts have a staunch belief that one of the key reasons for stunted progress so far has been women’s exclusion. 

Traditionally, women have often shown their leadership skills when it comes to keeping a check and even reducing the wastage of resources, recycling them and promoting environmental ethics. As home makers, mothers are in many cases economic providers at the same time for their families, they are more sensitive to the need for conservation. 

Around the globe, irrespective of whether a country is developed, developing or under-developed, if the topic of environment conservation is being discussed or action taken on it, we will get to see many local female voices. There is growing evidence that women are taking up key roles in the implementation of environment friendly practices at the grassroots level and are getting involved in policy making too, an indication that we are headed in the right direction.

Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist and conservationist, is credited for advancing the global environmental movement. One of her books, Silent Spring, was a table turner in instigating discussions on the use of synthetic pesticides, which resulted in a nationwide ban in the USA on DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and other pesticides. The associated grassroots environmental movement also led to the birth of the US Environmental Protection Agency. It is important to note that this happened between 1955 and 1962, a time when not many were talking about the subject. 

South Asia too is witnessing an increase in the number of women conservationist, especially at the grassroots level. These women are home makers, farmers and professionals working in various industries in the day but taking out time to contribute towards environment conservation as well. 

Pakistan is no exception. As one of the most vulnerable countries affected by climate change (according to German Watch Institute Pakistan ranks among the top ten), it is necessary that we join forces with women at the grassroots levels. As Pakistan becomes aware of the magnitude of the crisis and starts to react, women are actively participating in the learning process, by being part of awareness campaigns, plantation drives, incorporating sustainable practices into their daily lives and most importantly ensuring that they spread the knowledge to all those around them. There are tremendous examples of women working to improve the environment around them. Be it Hajira Bibi, a community activist from the coastal town of Keti Bunder or Nazia Ahsan, a government school teacher from Abbottabad district, a strong advocate of environmental education, women are making change happen. 

Pakistan is an agri-based economy where approximately 62 per cent of the population lives in rural areas and communities in these areas are facing the impacts of environmental degradation first hand.  Decades old livelihoods are becoming threatened, but even though these communities understand the change happening around them they lack the training to deal with it. Their heavy dependence on natural resources to fulfill their basic needs means that the impacts they face will multiply with time. 

In such circumstances, women have stepped up. They have not only responded to awareness campaigns related to their local environment and how best to co-exist with nature but they have proactively participated in vocational trainings that now help contribute towards their families financial stability. Women in the northern areas of the country, mainly the Galyats, have learned the skills of tailoring, have become self-sufficient by earning an additional source of income. Likewise, their counterparts in the southern region, covering the cities of Kot Addu, Sukkur, Rajanpur, Rahim Yar Khan and Gothki, now know how to preserve fish products in a sustainable manner and have become successful entrepreneurs. 

Their entrepreneurial skills have not been limited to what they learnt through their vocational training, many have also turned into ‘green entrepreneurs’ as well. Under some of WWF-Pakistan’s training programmes, women of local communities were given kitchen gardening tips. Initially to be used for their domestic use, women after fulfilling their own needs took their produce to the market and made their kitchen gardens a source of healthy food for the area and a source of income for their families simultaneously. When women in the fishing communities adopted •environmental practices they recycled their illegal fishing nets and instead of adding to the plastic waste they used them to fence their kitchen gardens; turning a hazard to our biodiversity into a sustainable alternative. 

Similarly, fuel efficient units were introduced in some communities and once again women took charge. Those who volunteered for trainings and learnt to make mud fuel efficient stoves and biogas plants, then took the responsibility to build and install them in the rest of the community homes.    

Women, in general, ensure that whatever they learn, •the knowledge is spread within their families and communities. Those who have been part of these vocational trainings later on take up the roles of trainers and equip other women with these skills, through community based organizations. These units have become a well-connected network in these areas and have helped locals understand the importance of nature’s gifts they have been blessed with. As a result they now willingly take ownership and measures to conserve the environment. 

It is important to keep in mind that in the process of achieving this, these women have had to fight a plethora of taboos along the way and they have done it successfully. In doing so, they did not only clear their own path but have also made way for others by breaking stereotypes. 

Women have shown that their active participation in the defense of the environment can help slow down the degradation of our natural resources. It is important that their level of participation and numbers be increased at the grassroots level, as environmental educators, motivators and implementers. Their involvement will be an integral part of the process leading to the improved health of our planet.      

This article was first published in Natura, WWF-Pakistan's quarterly magazine's 2016 issue 1


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