Lack of Serious Clout Hinders Women’s Influence on Major Environmental Questions, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Stony Brook University Earth Day Celebration

23 April 2010

Lack of Serious Clout Hinders Women’s Influence on Major Environmental Questions, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Stony Brook University Earth Day Celebration

23 April 2010
Deputy Secretary-General
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Lack of Serious Clout Hinders Women’s Influence on Major Environmental Questions,


Deputy Secretary-General Tells Stony Brook University Earth Day Celebration


Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro’s remarks at the Stony Brook University Earth Day celebration, themed “the role of women in environment in developing countries”, on 22 April:

I am delighted to be with you as Stony Brook University marks “Earth Day”; I thank President Stanley for his kind invitation to speak on “the role of women in the environment in developing countries”.

Stony Brook boasts a greatly international and culturally diverse student body and staff.  This University not only educates tomorrow’s global leaders, but your “Earthstock” celebrations demonstrate the importance you attach to those issues of today which affect our future.

I very much like the symbolism of discussing women’s issues on such a day; I believe that women are the mothers of our humanity.  Today, as we celebrate 40 years of Earth Day, it’s common ground to say that humanity is at a crossroads as far as protecting our relationship with the environment is concerned.

In developing countries, women and girls stand in the front line of poverty.  They provide invaluable contributions to sustaining communities around the world.  They manage the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources.

You are probably familiar with the United Nations commitment to protecting the environment.   This is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals.  The Millennium Development Goals are a set of development goals agreed to in 2000 at the United Nations by all the world’s countries and all leading development institutions, and they have galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.

These Goals provide the broad framework for the United Nations work on development issues: reducing or eliminating extreme poverty; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality; reducing child and maternal mortality; and combating HIV, AIDS and malaria -- and all of this by the target date of 2015.

This afternoon, in addressing the broad topic of women’s role in the environment in developing countries, I would like to give a particular focus to three main areas: water, sanitation and energy.

Let us begin with water and sanitation, which are both closely linked.  In most societies, women have primary responsibility for managing household water supplies, sanitation and health.  However, efforts geared towards improving the management of the world’s finite water resources, and extending access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, often overlook the central role of women.

The sustainable management of water and sanitation provide great benefits to a society, and the economy as a whole.  Thus it is crucial to involve both women and men in water resource-management and sanitation policies.  This ensures that the specific needs and concerns of all are taken into account.

Allow me to examine some of the major factors that need to be addressed in implementing a gender approach to water management.

First: equitable access to water supply.  Access to safe drinking water is a basic human right and essential for achieving gender equality, sustainable development and poverty alleviation.  Almost 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, 2.6 billion lack access to improved sanitation services.  The majority of these are women and girls.  Women and girls spend many hours in search of water.  Providing accessible clean water is essential so that they can devote more time to education, income generation and other pursuits.

Second: equitable entitlement to land rights and water for productive use.  Equitable access to land and water use can empower women and help address the root causes of poverty and gender inequality.  However, lack of ownership or user rights to land is an underlying cause of women’s limited access to water and a key reason for the greater poverty of female-headed households.

And yet, in least developed regions, food security remains dependent on women’s subsistence production to feed the population.  If we exclude cash crops, evidence shows that women produce half the world’s food.  In most developing countries, rural women produce between 60 and 80 per cent of the food.

The real problem faced by many female farmers, however, is that they have little or no access to irrigation water for agricultural purposes.  They are dependent entirely on rainfall.  Women also have an important role in establishing sustainable use of resources in small-scale fishing communities.  Their knowledge is valuable for managing and protecting watersheds and wetlands.  It is therefore crucial to give women the recognition as land holders and as contributors to the development process.

Third: access to sanitation.  Lack of sanitation facilities and poor hygiene cause water-borne diseases, such as diarrhoea and cholera.  The incidence of these diseases is highest among the poor, especially school-aged children.  Each year, more than 2.2 million people in developing countries die from preventable diseases associated with unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation.  The social and environmental health costs of ignoring the need to address sanitation -- including hygiene and wastewater collection and treatment -- are far too great.

A focus on gender differences is particularly important with regard to sanitation initiatives. Gender-balanced approaches should be encouraged in plans and structures for implementation.  Simple measures, such as providing schools with water and latrines, and promoting hygiene education in the classroom, can enable girls to get an education, especially after they reach puberty, and reduce health-related risks for all.

Moreover, the design and the location of latrines close to homes may reduce the risk of violence against women, including sexual, which can occur out in the open after nightfall.  I recently visited Haiti.  I went to a displaced persons’ camp -- this was another stark reminder of the dire reality that women still face sexual violence in far too many places.

Fourth: capacity-development.  When looking closely at capacity-building in water supply and sanitation in developing countries, it becomes clear that most of the training is aimed at water resources and water supply specialists.  There is a lack, however, of programmes aimed at expertise in social development, sanitation or hygiene education, and which emphasizes a gradual scaling down to the women primarily responsible for operating and maintaining water supplies and sanitation.

Targeting women for training and capacity-building on all these fronts -- both at the grass-roots and expert level -- is critical to the sustainability of water and sanitation initiatives.

To achieve all of these objectives, the participation of women on an equal basis in decision-making will be critical.  And this brings me to my fifth point.

Women are underrepresented in the “water world”.  Careers and training in water management are dominated by men.  If water management is to benefit from the environmentally conscious perspective of women, particularly in developing countries -- and to represent the needs of all -- it is important that both women and men must have an equal say.

A start has been made through the increase in the number of women serving as ministers of water and environment.  But the empowerment of women as water managers must also be felt at the grass-roots level.

My sixth point concerns the indigenous perspective of protecting the resource base.  Indigenous peoples possess traditional knowledge and skills concerning locating water and protecting its source.  Water sources on indigenous lands are often considered sacred, and indigenous people, many of them women, are the holders of “water knowledge”.  Their traditional land-management skills often provide the most effective method of water resource management.

However, indigenous peoples are seriously affected by uncompensated and unsustainable loss of water to farming and to other industries introduced from outside their communities.  Measures must be taken so that indigenous people can develop the capacity for sustainable and equitable self-development.

Let me now turn to the question of resource mobilization.  The volume of external financial assistance is not likely to grow fast enough to meet needs around the world.  Governments will have to continue to be primarily responsible for raising and using public funds to build infrastructure.  These funds may come from general revenue, cross-subsidization, user fees or borrowing.

Formal and informal women’s organizations and networks can play important roles in mobilizing resources for equitable water and land management projects.  However, while their potential contributions are considerable, women in developing countries often lack access to tools such as computers and the Internet to disseminate their ideas and apply for funds.  Instructing women in project management and fundraising techniques can empower them to launch new projects and to contribute to poverty alleviation.

Having briefly looked at the issue of water and sanitation, let me now turn, as I mentioned earlier, to the question of energy services.

Worldwide, 2.4 billion people rely on traditional biomass fuels for cooking, as they do not have access to modern fuels.  Access to cooking fuel is essential for good health.  Hundreds of millions of people -- mainly women and children -- spend several hours daily gathering fuelwood and water, often from considerable distances, for household needs.

Because of these demands on their time and energy, women and children are denied opportunities for other endeavours, such as economic activities and school attendance.  They also suffer considerable damage to their health, especially respiratory diseases from indoor air pollution, by having to cook indoors on poorly ventilated stoves.

Poor urban people spend a much greater share of their household income on energy than higher income groups.  Incidentally, this is also true for water.  The urban poor have smaller and less predictable incomes than higher income groups, and their appliances use fuels much less efficiently.  Poor households headed by women are even worse off.

Global evidence shows that most expenditure on energy services by poor people is on fuels for cooking, while the remainder is spent on fuels or batteries for light, typically in a ratio of 80 to 20 per cent.  The cost of acquiring energy is further increased by having to buy fuelwood, charcoal and kerosene in small amounts because the poor lack cash resources to buy these fuels in bulk.  We need to develop ways of reducing the costs of these services to the poor.

Furthermore, the lack of modern fuels and electricity reinforce gender inequalities.  Women and girls are disproportionately burdened by lack of access to modern fuels and electricity since they are responsible for fuel gathering, cooking and food preparation.  Many girls are withdrawn from school to attend to such domestic chores.  This causes life-long harm to their literacy and economic opportunities.  Access to better energy services is therefore particularly important for women and girls and their empowerment.

Indeed, equitable access to energy is central to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.  For example, electricity supply in schools enables the use of educational media and communications, including information and communications technology.  Women in households with electricity are more likely to have access to information on gender issues from radio and television.

In short, increasing access to energy brings major benefits for women and girls -- in health, education and productive activities.  And by boosting agricultural production and household incomes, modern fuels and electricity can help reduce the malnutrition that is such a big factor in child mortality.  By helping households to switch to modern appliances that burn kerosene, liquefied petroleum gas or modern biomass fuels, the poor can avoid emissions that cause respiratory ailments, which are the fourth leading health risk in developing countries.

This, in turn, would improve the average life expectancy in developing countries.  It would reduce in particular the number of women and children that die from indoor air pollution, estimated to be around 1.6 million annually.

More generally, it is regrettable that the use of poor-quality energy sources affects the global environment.  Fuelwood and charcoal use in households and industries is unsustainable when it leads to land degradation from fuelwood-gathering and to indoor air pollution from biomass combustion.  Likewise, burning fossil fuels can lead to outdoor air pollution, acidification of land and water, and emissions of greenhouse gases. 

Let me conclude by saying that these are only a few of the issues related to women, water and energy.  Nevertheless, we can see how such matters are linked, and how addressing them is central to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

The issues I have just outlined might appear notional to some of you.  Understandably so.  I myself am a citizen of Tanzania, which as you may know continues to face most of the challenges I have discussed.  These are true issues confronting real people, particularly women and girls.

It is therefore critical that Governments and relevant stakeholders design inclusive policies and programmes to manage the environment.  These must be done in a manner in which women can play their full and rightful role.  We must avoid perpetuating the inequalities and burdens currently shouldered by women.  Taking care of the environment is the responsibility of all.

Such measures must also be both holistic and sustainable.  They must take into account the intellectual challenge of assessing whether or not humanity hasn’t crossed the boundaries of what Mother Earth can indeed bear, before it is too late.

The United Nations is committed to removing gender inequalities in access to water, sanitation and energy services.  Prompt action can and will remedy these ills for the benefit of all.

As we commemorate Earth Day, I commend you for paying attention to these issues and I wish you each every success in your studies and future endeavours.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.