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African women stand up for the planet and equality

Climate change seriously affects our planet, transforming the landscape. These changes in the ecosystem have had a huge impact on the lives of millions of people, particularly on poor farmers living in the ‘Global South’ of the world, whose livelihoods primarily depend on natural resources.

Studies from the UN and the World Bank show that a specific group among these agricultural communities is especially threatened by climate change, namely women. In its paper ‘The role of gender in climate smart agriculture’, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) claims that climate change’s effects hit women harder than men. This is both a reflection of the gender-differentiated structure of society and a contributor to these inequalities.

Female labour in agriculture is huge, making up 43% of the world’s food production. However, because of gender discriminations, women have fewer assets, entitlements and economic opportunities compared to men, resulting in a greater dependence on natural resources, hence an increased exposure to climate-related risks. As women are usually less educated than men, they are excluded from the decision-making process, and are denied access to improved technologies. Consequently, women’s adaptive capacity to climate change is particularly low. Moreover, women are 14 times more likely than men to die in case of natural disasters, due to cultural and religious norms: the burden of household work, caring for children and the elderly, and even their clothes may hinder their ability to escape when emergencies occur.

Against this backdrop, a big step forward has recently been made at a global level to include gender in climate change mitigation planning. Key international players such as FAO and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) have implemented new strategies focused on developing climate-smart agricultural practices with a gender-responsive approach. In other words, their action is twofold. First, it intends to enhance food security through the introduction of agricultural methods resilient to climate change. Second, it tackles gender-inequality by ensuring the same benefits and opportunities for men and women, as well as increasing female representation on public institutions. In its research ‘The Power of Parity’, the McKinsey Global Institute found out that reaching full gender parity would add up to $28 trillion to the annual global GDP, comparable to the current economies of China and the U.S. combined.

Despite their weak position, women do not give up to climate change. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim has been working for 20 years with the association she founded in 1999, Association des femmes peules Authochtones du Tchad (AFPAT), to defend both the environment and women’s rights within the Chadian Mbororo nomadic community, where she was born and raised. In fact, Chad is seriously experiencing the impact of climate-change: Lake Chad’s surface has been reduced by 95%, according to the UN Environmental Programme. Half of this dramatic diminution is due to severe droughts driven by climate variability, which has also contributed to the loss of tons of fish and the decrease of pasture for the cattle.

Philipp M. Hildebrand, Vice-Chairman, BlackRock, United Kingdom, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Coordinator, Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT), Chad, Peter O’Neill, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Al Gore, Vice-President of the United States (1993-2001); Chairman and Co-Founder, Generation Investment Management, USA; Member of the Board of Trustees, World Economic Forum and Bronwyn Nielsen, Editor-in-Chief and Executive Director, CNBC Africa, South Africa speaking during the Session “Responding to Extreme Environmental Risks” at the Annual Meeting 2018 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 24, 2018. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek

Hindou’s association aims at fighting the ecosystem degradation by relying on the expertise of Mbororo’s native women who are an invaluable source of knowledge when it comes to Sahel’s environment, as their entire lives depend on it. Promoting the integration of women into the community and enhancing their role in men’s eyes represent a big step forward on the road to equality. AFPAT also helps women become less vulnerable to climate change by involving them in new economic activities with the aim of reducing their dependence on the land products while diversifying their revenues. In 2017, for her untiring commitment to Chad’s people and ecosystem, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim was awarded with the Prix spécial Danielle Mitterrand France-Libertés, a price given to remarkable projects realized by civil society actors. The following year she held a conversation with ex-Vice President Al Gore during The World Economic Forum in Davos.

Today, more and more African leaders have joined forces with ordinary women in their everyday battle against climate change. Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the first female mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, is a noteworthy example. She ran for office in March 2018 under the banner of environmental action; engaging the citizens in a process of housing development and urban planning, she wants to “transform Freetown”, enhancing its resilience to climate change. It should be borne in mind that the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (a grant-funding mechanism managed by the World Bank) ranked Sierra Leone as the third most vulnerable country in the world to natural disasters.

The importance of Aki-Sawyerr’s work has been internationally recognized as she was invited to speak at the third Annual Women4Climate Conference, held in February 2019. Mayors, business leaders, and change makers from all over the globe attended the Paris conference “to showcase how women are taking the lead when it comes to climate action”.It is now widely agreed that women play a central role in climate change-related issues. Not only because they are disproportionately experiencing its effects, but especially because they are moving to the forefront of the challenge for building a greener world and a better future. The ambitious, yet righteous goal of the challenge is perfectly presented by the following motto: “When we join our voices together, we are unstoppable. We are powerful. We are Women4Climate”.