“Women are environmental leaders and actors” – Lakshmi Puri

Opening statement of UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at the High-Level Gender and Environment Forum, 23 June 2014, in Nairobi, Kenya.

Date: Wednesday, June 25, 2014

[Check against delivery]

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to join you today for the opening of this High-Level Gender and Environment Forum. I would like to thank the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Network of Women Ministers and Leaders for the Environment for inviting UN Women to be a partner for this important event. This meeting could not have happened without UNEP’s vision and leadership and I would like to salute their initiative and commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Our coming together is significant. As the first-ever UN Environment Assembly meets, it is essential for it to have a strong focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment as an integral aspect of environmental management. This is especially important as the Assembly discusses the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the post-2015 development agenda.

It is also significant that we meet here in Nairobi, where the environmental and the women’s movements have so often congregated. Today, I think of all the eminent women that have shaped and led the environmental movement over the years.

I think of late Wangari Maathai who used to say: “It's the little things citizens do. That's what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.”

I think of the women involved in the Chipko movement that resisted industrial logging in the Himalayas and making the movement exemplary in terms of women’s participation.

I think of the network of grass-roots women leaders in South Asia working on sustaining and scaling up capacity to reduce risks and vulnerabilities in their communities and build a culture of resilience.

I think of the women who resisted dam projects that would destroy communities and livelihoods in the Narmada river valley … women mobilizing around water rights in Bolivia… women mobilizing to protect forests and indigenous territories in many countries and regions – against land grabs, to transform impacts of extractive industries, and in favour of sustainable agriculture by small women farmers.

Some of these women were here in Nairobi nearly three decades ago, in 1985, at the Third World Conference on Women. It was a key moment in the recognition that gender equality and women’s rights are not isolated issues, but encompass all areas of human activity. The Nairobi outcome stated the importance of women’s full participation in all spheres of society, including the environment.

This set the ground for the historic Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which continues to be a landmark normative agreement and the defining policy framework for the achievement of gender equality and women’s rights.

Women and the environment” is one of the 12 critical areas of concern with three strategic objectives:

  • Involving women actively in environmental decision-making at all levels,
  • Integrating their concerns and perspectives in policies and programmes, and
  • Establishing ways to assess the impact of development and environmental policies on women.

But nearly 20 years after its adoption, the Platform for Action remains an unfinished agenda that requires political recommitment and accelerated implementation, including for the critical area of concern of “women and the environment”.

This is why UN Women has launched a Beijing+20 campaign entitled “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It!”. We hope that our efforts will have a multiplier effect to create mass awareness and a broad movement in support of gender equality and women’s rights, not just among the general public but also among new constituencies and among leaders and decision-makers.

This month, as part of our campaign, we are putting special emphasis on women and the environment.

Women are environmental leaders and actors. They are enablers and beneficiaries of sustainable development in its three dimensions – economic, social, and environmental. They are agents of change for environmental sustainability.

Women are holders of traditional knowledge, managers of resources, environmental activists, innovators, caretakers of livelihoods, CEOs, parliamentarians, Heads of State and Ministers. There can be no comprehensive environmental management and decision-making without the full participation of women.

This is particularly true as we witness the enormous changes to the environment that have taken place in the last 20 years. I am thinking, for example, about climate change. From general skepticism 20 years ago, all regions have now witnessed the very concrete impacts of climate change. It is now more urgent than ever to put in place adaptation and mitigation strategies and it is essential that these strategies take gender perspectives into account.

Indeed, while the impacts of climate change fall on all of us, the areas where women play a central role – food security, sustainable agriculture, energy, livelihoods, health, natural resource management and use, among others – are most directly impacted.

Overlooking gender equality issues and ignoring the voices, needs and priorities of half the world’s population in environmental responses, including climate change, will not only yield sub-optimal results; it will also lead to the exacerbation of existing inequalities and reverse progress already made on environmental sustainability and on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Putting in place a conducive environment for women to exercise their voice and agency as resilient leaders, innovators, and contributors in all aspects of the response to environmental management will deliver the highest returns.

This was reaffirmed in the Rio+20 Outcome, from which the UN Environment Assembly originated. In Rio, governments and all stakeholders unequivocally stated that gender equality and women’s empowerment are drivers of sustainable development. They underscored women’s vital role in achieving sustainable development.

And they committed to ensuring that women benefit from equal rights, access, participation and leadership in the economy, society, decision-making and resource allocation, so that they can truly fulfil their role as environmental leaders.

Looking to the future, this is why it is critical to ensure that environmental dimensions are captured in a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal on achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment. At the same time, gender perspectives must be mainstreamed in all other goals, especially those with a strong environmental dimension, such as access to water and energy.

I am hopeful that this first UN Environmental Assembly, through this Gender and Environment Forum, will not only carry this message forward in its deliberations decisions, but that it will give an impetus for greater action and progress.

The Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo said: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now”.

Let us make the promises made in Nairobi, Rio and Beijing more than 20 years ago bloom and come to life today.

Let us create a sustainable world where gender equality is a reality for every woman and girl.

Just Picture It!  The time is now.

Thank you.