SPECIAL REPORT: Women key to environment sustainability, says UNEP boss

Sunday September 8 2019

Joyce Msuya responds to questions during this

Joyce Msuya responds to questions during this interview when she visited the country recently. 

Gender inequality is one of the most pervasive threats to achievement of the UN-backed Sustainable Development Goals-2030 (SDGs-2030). It has negative impacts on access to, use of and control over a wide range of resources – as well as on the ability to meet human rights obligations with respect to the enjoyment by both women and men of a clean, safe, healthy and sustainable environment.

In this exclusive interview, The Citizen spoke to the deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Ms Joyce Msuya, who recently came to Tanzania to attend the Uongozi Institute Leadership Forum on Natural Resources Management.

During her visit, she also met with the UN Women Representative, Ms Hodan Addou, and various environment stakeholders in government, as well as other heads of UN agencies, youth networks and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs).

The general idea was to champion issues related to environmental governance, climate change – and how putting women at the centre of interventions can ensure sustainable development. Excerpts...


Question: Women play a critical role in efforts for environmental sustainability. How is UNEP working to ensure that women’s voices and presence becomes a reality in the space of environment and climate change in Africa?


Answer: In UNEP, we believe in the centrality of gender equality both within our organizational structures and in our programme activities. We envisage a world in which people are at the centre of sustainable development that is just, equitable and inclusive – and where sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development and environmental protection are achieved.

UNEP promotes gender equality and women’s empowerment by highlighting the important role that they play, recognizing their leadership and by ensuring their effective participation in sustainable development at all levels: policy and decision- making.

If you look at most of the environmental challenges we are facing – such as air pollution – women in Africa are at the centre of activities including fetching of firewood or charcoal for cooking. Other chores also expose women to chemicals and food safety issues.

It’s important to include women in the processes seeking a solution to the environment and climate change problems. While we have technical capacity programmes targeting women, we also understand the power of mentorship initiatives. Through our Gender and Safeguards team in our Policy and Programme Division, we organise and participate in focused activities to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal-5 on gender equality, as well as empowerment of women on environment-related issues.

We are also practising what we are preaching. Currently, UNEP is led by two women. Four out of six top persons in our senior management team are women, and gender diversity is a key requirement in our recruitment processes.

Why is it so important for women to be at the centre of the sustainable environment and climate change agenda?

Women naturally tend to be integrators in communities and societies. For example, across the world, it’s usually women who take care of children and ensure the wellbeing of their families. Environment and climate change issues are multi-sectoral, and require an integrated approach to achieve sustainability. For example, when you address land issues, you also need to look at issues related to water, wildlife, agriculture and others through a gender lens.

A recent study titled ‘Cost of Gender Gap in Agricultural Productivity’ by UN Women’s Eastern and Southern Africa regional office, in collaboration with the World Bank and UNE-UNDP Poverty Environment Initiative found the gender gap to be 16 per cent in Tanzania; 25 per cent in Malawi, 13 per cent in Uganda, and 11.7 per cent in Rwanda.

A gender lens, therefore, can inform interventions and provide opportunities for women to use their skills in addressing multiple issues on natural resource management.

There are more women than men in the world, particularly the young generation. This is huge human capital we can build upon as part of the solution.

Again, women are part of the SDGs and the African Union Agenda-2063 development agendas. Therefore we should make sure they fully participate in all processes.

Working with UN Women, we launched the Africa Women Energy Entrepreneurs Framework (AWWEF) in 2017 which aimed to establish a platform to enable African women to play a role as change agents and main stakeholders across the energy value-chain, and to address the challenges and barriers that hinder women’s economic empowerment.

Do you think the link between the environment, gender equality and poverty is well understood by various actors? How are you working to help countries lagging behind?

Yes and No. In some parts of the world there is understanding of the linkages than in others. In many countries we see Environment ministries working on multi-sectoral dimensions of environment, including – but not limited to – poverty and gender. Progress is being made; but more needs to be done.

We also have countries that are lagging behind, where we still need to do a lot of work – including education – and providing technical assistance to support policy reforms and implementation.

The SDGs provide a good framework to push forward on the linkages between gender and sound environmental management. During the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) held in Kenya this year, UNEP, the Network of Women Ministers and Leaders for the Environment (whose Secretariat is at UNEP) launched the ‘Global Framework of Action on Gender, Environment and the SDGs’.

The strategic objective of the Framework is to ensure faster progress towards meeting the environmental SDGs by promoting a gender-responsive and a gender equality-based approach in policy planning and implementation.

Several stakeholders including UNEP, UN Women and other UN agencies – as well as environmental organisations and NGOs – are advocating the integration of gender in environment protection matters at the international, national and community levels. However, as gender mainstreaming involves culture change, absolute results can only be seen in the long-term. Nevertheless, we continue to see short-term gains in many countries; but long-term advocacy and outreach are a must in order to reach our ultimate goal.

It is, therefore, important for us to strengthen our collaboration in the area of advocacy with UN Women to be able to take our messages to the grassroots where they are needed the most.

What key issues are emerging on environment and climate change in Africa and specifically Tanzania?

Most African countries are facing three challenges. Climate change is an issue because countries are already experiencing prolonged periods of drought and cold weather conditions while sea-levels are rising.

Biodiversity loss due to climate change and unsustainable practices is also an issue as some indigenous species are becoming extinct at a much higher rate in some places. This can have adverse effects on economies that depend on tourism.

On the other hand, we have heard from participants at the recent Africa Leadership Forum that limited education and awareness on the impacts of unsustainable practices – such as tree-felling, overgrazing and stream banks cultivation – on human life are cross-cutting issues that need further work and support.

Tanzania is vast, diverse and well-endowed with natural resources. Properly managing these resources can benefit from participation of both women and men.

Women’s voices on issues related to the environment, climate change and sustainable consumption and production are also coming up in Tanzania, and we need to continue providing educational opportunities to empower women in various sectors due to the multi-sectoral nature of environment and climate change issues.

President John Magufuli’s speech at the Uongozi Institute Leadership Forum highlighted priorities of the government in driving its agenda focusing on management of natural resources, poverty reduction and economic development. The industrialization agenda also provides further potential opportunities to advance these priorities.

Did you get the sense that the Tanzania government is committed to taking on-board environmental issues in its industrialization drive? How can women influence this?

I saw political commitment to take on-board all sectors and ideas that can propel the industrialization agenda.

The Magufuli government is committed to transition into a middle-income country. That presents great opportunity for the UN to champion the development agenda and become part of the processes that offer a chance for the country to progress in the SDGs agenda.

With collaborative and well-organized efforts, women can influence this drive, too – working closely with women in decision-making.

Looking at the current organization in the environment space in Tanzania – where the Environment minister works in the Office of the Vice President, Ms Samia Suluhu Hassan – I see unique opportunities which all stakeholders can tap into to influence the environment and gender equality agendas in the industrialization trajectory. In this structure, the Environment minister is tasked to work on multi-sectoral issues that have an impact on the environment – including industrialization; agriculture; water; women; and the youth.

The linkages between environmental issues and other sectoral issues necessitated the establishment of the strategic development plan within the ministry to include seven different ministries.

This coordinating framework through the Vice President’s Office presents a unique opportunity for UN Women and UNEP to advocate at a much higher decision-making level through the partner ministries.

It would contribute to the industrialization processes, as well as address and coordinate other multi-sectoral dimensions of environment issues – such as climate-smart agriculture!