It is believed that the most ancient cultures that inhabited the Earth worshiped nature. This is supported by archaeological evidence dating to the prehistoric era; thousands of years ago our predecessors worshiped the Earth as a living female being .
This belief led to the rise of matriarchical societies and when these eclipsed, the notion that nature was female was retained in the deities that people believed in. For example, in ancient Greece among the twelve gods of Olympus it was Demeter that was the goddess of harvest, agriculture, and fertility.
People attributed the change of seasons to her mourning of the loss of her daughter Persephone who spent winters in the underworld with Hades; the months Persephone stayed with Hades were believed to be those when the land was not productive and when Persephone joined her mother spring would come.
Even today the expression mother nature is one that we still often use and it clearly has its roots in that intuitive perception of nature as a female entity. The parallel is not surprising: nature and the Earth bear fruit and create life, very much like women give birth; nature provides nurture and shelter to plants and animals, very much like mothers protect their babies.
So if there is a bond between women and our planet, does this mean our planet needs a woman’s touch?
Funnily enough, if anything, women are left out of the conversation when it comes to the planet’s protection.
About five years ago, in 2011, UN experts sounded the alarm bell when they acknowledged that women in Africa were being excluded from accessing funds for dealing with climate change. With mostly women working in agriculture in Africa, the sector probably hit the most by climate change, the absence of funds going to them not only means that there are no adequate mitigation mechanisms put in place when it comes to the impacts of agriculture, but that existing gender imbalances will be further sharpened.
The same study revealed that the majority of funding, around 70%, from the World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds goes to financing energy and transportation projects, male-dominated sectors of the economy .
According to the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), environmental challenges such as climate change affect women in a way that is disproportionally greater compared to men. This is because women, particularly in developing countries, have more limited access to resources and rights, fewer opportunities for mobility and are often excluded from participating in the decision-making process.
Furthermore, the division of labor in developing countries is such that women’s role relate to taking care of households and communities, cultivating and preserving seeds and soils, preserving traditional agricultural knowledge and practices, as well as managing important for the communities natural resources such as firewood and water . Providing a sense of the scale of the service women provide to these communities is the fact that women in developing countries collect 80% of the wild edibles and save up to 90% of the seeds used in small-scale agriculture .
On the ground, the benefits of involving women in conservation projects and policy are now being widely documented. For example, in 2013 an NGO called SCOPE with the support of the Scottish government set up a project to engage women in conservation in the area of Tharparkar, in south-east Pakistan. It helped women grow a local gum tree, guggal, which is widely used in everyday products such as cosmetics.
The gum tree had been under threat of extinction but with the conservation efforts of the Tharparkar women this has been halted and the women are able to generate income from their efforts which they then invest in small-scale agriculture projects or to help educate their children .
The role of women in conservation is a crucial one since it is widely recognised that there is substantial overlap between the areas of conservation, development and livelihood, areas which primarily fall within the area of responsibility of women given their role in their local communities .
This is why in 2008 the Nike Foundation, in collaboration with others such as the NoVo Foundation, and United Nations Foundation, launched the Girl Effect, a campaign challenging people to think differently about the role of girls (and women) in sustainable development . At the time of the launch of this campaign, a further study revealed that an educated girl will invest 10-20 times more income back into her family and community than a man would, further corroborating empirical evidence on the unique contribution of women to sustainable development .
To realize the benefits that women can bring to the environment, they need to play a direct role in the policies and practices that are put in place for protecting the natural resources their communities rely on. These structures and mechanisms need to be developed proactively as currently traditional gender roles are prohibiting this.
The good news is that there are plenty of examples of how this can be overcome. More specifically, in Uganda, the African Wildlife Fund (AFW) is working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to partner up conservation champions with young women and mentor them into conservation leadership .