Entrance of Gender Issues into Global Environmental Development Agenda

By  Alice Odingo, SI UN Representative to UN Environment, Women Major Group (WMG) Alternate Facilitating Committee member and NGO Major Group Organizing Partner, Global South.

There are many definitions of the term environment. One such definition is “The external physical, biological and socio-economic conditions influencing the growth and development of crops and animals (organisms) in an area.” (Obara 1988).  Environment in this case is seen in its totality, encompassing both the biophysical factors and the human issues. This article is meant to raise awareness on current environmental issues, their impacts on women and girls and how we can all take action to make the world better, now and in future.

In the international scene, environmental issues became prominent in the 1972, after the Stockholm Conference, which led to the establishment of United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in 1973, now called UN Environment after the Rio de Janeiro Conference in 2012.  Since then, there have been a number of conferences leading to several multi-lateral environmental agreements touching on different aspects of the environment, from ozone layer, to climate change, to wildlife conservation and to marine life, amongst others.  Amongst the outstanding conferences is the Millennium Development Summit which materialised into the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and for the first time recognised and integrated gender issues into the global development Agenda. This was a deviation from the World Conferences such as the Beijing Conference, and the Nairobi Conference amongst others – efforts which expanded space for women at various levels to let their voices be heard and participate in various decision-making processes.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 169 targets and once again the gender issues, particularly women and girls affairs, took centre stage (SDG 5). All the SDGs are linked to the environment and it is not possible to achieve the SDGs without taking care of climate change, whose impacts have gender differentials. As Soroptimists, we are very concerned about the achievement of the gender targets specified in the SDGs. Countries will be reporting to the High Level Political Forum on the progress made towards the attainment of the targets and Gender will be one of the selected goals during the 2017 Voluntary National Reviews.

At the UN Environment in Nairobi, 2017 is an important year as the third UN Environment Assembly (UNEA 3) will take place 4 – 6 December, where decisions will be made on different issues related to the environment that continue to shape our future. The theme for UNEA 3 is ‘Pollution Free Planet: Delivering a Deal to Detoxify the World’.  The theme has been preceded by three main campaigns by UN Environment: a) Clean Ocean Campaign, b) Breathe Life Campaign and c) Wildlife Campaign. The first two touched on pollution.  These campaigns are essential not only for women and girls, but for humanity in general. The impacts of human activities on our ecosystem and human health are discussed hereafter.

Amongst the many emerging environmental issues of 2016, four stand out as real threats to humanity and ecosystem health, namely: zoonoses (infectious diseases of animals that can be transmitted to humans), micro-plastics, unavoidable impacts of climate change on ecosystems and toxic accumulation in crops as a result of climate change.  About 60 percent of all infectious diseases and 75 percent of the emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic.  The scenario has been precipitated by an unprecedented increase in opportunities for pathogens to pass from wildlife to domestic animals, and through the biological and physical environment to humans, leading to zoonotic diseases (UNEP 2016).  The zoonoses such as Ebola, Bird flu, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley Fever, and Zika virus amongst others, threaten economic development, human and ecosystem health and therefore call for the need to conserve ecosystem as a whole unit.  Some of the diseases have gender differentials.  Deforestation and land use change (agriculture, mining and others) contribute to the erosion of biological resources thus compromising ecosystem integrity. A degraded ecosystem puts more burden on women and girls and therefore calls for immediate action to environmental conservation.

It has also been estimated that up to 12.7 million tones of plastics end up in oceans as a result of inadequate solid waste management.  On average, every one square kilometre of the world’s oceans has 63,320 micro-plastics (the size of a virus or ants) (UNEP 2016) that can be directly or indirectly ingested through food webs by marine organisms – zooplanktons, invertebrates, fishes, sea-birds and whales. To add to this problem, heavy metals such as lead and mercury and persistent organic pollutants can endanger human life.  A global action against use of plastics is long overdue and should be supported at all costs.  The other emerging environmental challenge that has been there for many years is climate change, as extreme climatic events continue to disrupt food production, water supply, infrastructure and settlement as well as human life and livelihoods.

Currently, over 60 percent of the ecosystems and their services are already degraded, a situation, likely to be worsened by climate change.  Besides, extreme environmental stress triggers biochemical reactions, leading to synthesis and concentration of chemical compounds that could be harmful to human and animal life. For instance, drought conditions impede or prevent conversion of nitrates into amino acids by plants causing nitrate accumulation.  Common plants most susceptible to nitrate accumulation include barley, maize, millet, sorghum, soybean and wheat, amongst others. The situation is again worsened by climate change. Climate change has become a global ‘pandemic’ due to misuse and mismanagement of the biophysical environment, affecting the unborn, the young, the elderly and other vulnerable groups. We must all arise, be united and face this mammoth challenge.

As Soroptimists, we can mobilise our constituency to support efforts that remove the use of plastics, or stir up innovation into using new environmentally friendly materials. The war on climate change should begin with door-to-to campaigns to ignite action in all quarters not only for women and girls but for the present and future generations. We must face environmental issues in totality to ensure continuous flow of ecosystem services, while also reducing pollution and further degradation of ecosystem resources”.

Alice Odingo is Senior Lecturer, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Nairobi and a member of Soroptimist International Club of Nairobi.  Alice is SI UN Representative to UN Environment, Women Major Group (WMG) Alternate Facilitating Committee member and NGO Major Group Organising Partner, Global South.

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