A few days ago, the world celebrated women by marking theInternational Women’s Day. It was a day on which the challenges facing women came to the fore, as well as recognizing the importance of women in society. In this spirit, Kennedy Mbeva reflects on women who have redefined environmental conservation and the strife to combat climate change, as well as promoting peace and development around the world.
One such woman, who was a luminary in many spheres, chief being environmental conservation, is none other than the late Prof. Wangari Maathai; talk of Prof. Maathai and what comes to mind is trees. Many a time Prof. Maathai’s environmental activism rubbed the Kenya government the wrong way. For example, in the early 1990s, she was beaten up, had her braids pulled and detained for opposing the construction of a government-backed multi-storey building on Uhuru Park, the major recreational park in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. She was also instrumental in engaging women in rural areas of Kenya to plant and nurture trees, mainly through agroforestry. There is an African proverb that states a winner is always feted at their home; sadly, Prof. Maathai was not feted in Kenya, but the world took note of her invaluable contribution to environmental governance and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Her legacy lives on through the environmental conservation she founded, Green Belt Movement.
On the policy front, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP) is the symbol of global efforts to combat climate change. At its helm is a woman, Christina Figueres, who is the Executive Secretary. As much us the efficacy of UNFCCC COP process has been questioned, its importance in charting global dialogue on climate change cannot be understated. Also, having a woman leading efforts to combat climate change is very important, since it is women, mostly form developing and underdeveloped countries, who bear the biggest brunt due to the ravages of climate change. Known for its complexity and geo-political gridlock tendencies, running the UN FCCC COP is no mean feat.
Recent discourse on climate change, environmental governance and sustainable development has hinged on posterity: the need to take into account the needs of future generations when consuming natural resources. In this respect, it is imperative to take note of the efforts of exceptional young women towards solving the biggest challenge facing humankind this century: climate change.
Africa is the poster continent for showcasing the ravages of climate change. But the last half-decade has seen a momentous shift in this perception - the proliferation of youth climate and environmental networks. The biggest youth climate network, in 32 African countries and counting, is the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change; this is a network of youth organizations dealing with climate change adaptation projects, climate advocacy and environmental conservation. One of the founders of AYICC is Grace Mwaura, a young Kenyan woman who spearheaded the formation of AYICC in 2000 after UNFCCC COP12 in Nairobi, Kenya.
With around 70% of the continent below 35 years of age, these young people have become the most valuable resource, especially with regards to combating climate change and unlocking innovation so as to realize sustainable development. Currently, Grace is a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, an advisor to AYICC, a role model to young African women, as well as leading efforts to integrate young people into the activities of IUCN through by heading the IUCN Intergenerational Partnership for Sustainability Taskforce through the design of appropriate programs targeted at engaging young people in IUCN activities. She was also the first youth councillor at the IUCN secretariat, and her efforts led to the establishment of the IUCN Intergenerational Partnership for Sustainability Taskforce.
However, this article would lose its essence if we do not remember the countless number of women all over the world who are contributing to environmental governance and climate change adaptation. From the women who have organized themselves into groups that provide alternative livelihoods to women affected by climate change, to taking care of important ecosystems such as forests, we celebrate you all; no wonder we always talk of Mother Earth!
 UN International Year of Youth Regional Overview: Youth in Africa
Cover photo: Lynn Johnson/Ripple Effect Images from http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/node/392
* Photo: Martin Godwin from the Guardian.
** Photo: From WMO.
*** Photo: Grace Mwaura from IUCN.