June 21, 2012 | Health and Well-Being, Law and Justice, Politics and Leadership, Economic Opportunity

Rio+20: Highlighting the Voices of Women

World Pulse delivered the voices of grassroots women leaders to the UN’s 2nd Landmark Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Hear a selection of their recommendations, exposing that sustainable development must tackle issues ranging from sanitation to land rights to economic empowerment for women.

UN Photo/Tim McKulka

By Corine Milano

World Pulse (Link to original article)
June 12, 2012

Recommendation: Invest in Community-Driven Development

BRAZIL: The Future of My Grandchildren
Valéria Barbosa da Silva | Manager, ONG Cruzada do Menor | Brazil

My city of Rio de Janeiro is beauty: It has stunning beaches, breathtaking scenery, and hospitable people. The beauty of the city goes beyond the landscape and extends to the culture of the people. Many of our people live in the many favelas of Brazil, sometimes called slums.

Poor immigrants make their homes in risky areas—on hillsides, on the banks of rivers, in places that are not structured to uphold homes. When the rains fall, there are always losses, either the death of loved ones or the collapse of homes. In addition to environmental issues, favelas are known for violence and high rates of drug use.

We have taken measures into our own hands. Policing units are working to create a state of peace. There are groups working on issues of urban sanitation. In partnership with the government, civil society provides care and social programs for these at-risk communities. But we must go further.

All must unite for the sustainable development of our state, our country, and our world. We must invest more in education, teaching our children to preserve their planet. This means lessons in entrepreneurship, recycling, conservation, and better utilization of natural resources.

Teach children and community members to ask questions. What do you do with leftover food to discourage insects and rodents? How do you reduce the flow of debris and sewage? How do you conserve water? Protect vegetation? Does new construction meet the environmental needs of the future? By asking these questions, we allow people to envision a new world.

The grandchildren of today’s youth will need to eat, to breathe, to have their thirst quenched. And the parents of the future—our youth today—need to eat, breath, and have their thirst quenched. And for that to happen, people must feel responsible for the longevity of our planet’s natural resources.

INDIA: Sanitation in My Little Village
Bagirathi Ramanathan | Founder, Women in Solidarity | India

I live in a village in India. Here, the public uses vacant sites and roadsides for toileting and health problems are rampant due to poor sanitation and hygiene. Local administrations have created a number of public toilets for public use, but water scarcity and maintenance of the facilities are major issues. The unclean toilets are causing disease, and there is no sufficient water supply for cleaning them. This drives community members back to open land for toileting.

Garbage collects in heaps and dust and plastic bags fly throughout the air. Cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and other birds roam the neighborhoods. We are vulnerable to health issues caused by lack of sanitation and there is no immediate health care available. Public health officials fail to step in.

As a social worker, I educate rural women about environment and sanitation. Physical and mental health and environmental health are linked. I meet young girls who are not urinating during school hours due to the conditions of the facilities, which leads to urinary tract infections, bladder stones, and painful vaginal ulcers. These conditions have an impact on emotional health as well. I am working to encourage local agencies to construct toilets in schools—toilets that have a continuous water supply and that are easily maintained.

I encourage leaders at Rio+20 to consider the impact sanitation issues have not only on our environment, but also on the health of men, women, and children.

Recommendation: Land Stewardship Starts with Land Rights for Women

CANADA: Homeless in Our Homeland
Paula LaPierre | International Aboriginal Rights Activist | Canada

I am a woman of Kichesipirini Algonquin First Nation descent, an Indigenous Peoples of Canada. My homeland is unceded Algonquin Nation territory, located within the watershed of the Ottawa River, under the administration of Ontario and Quebec.

Despite records that go back 400 years documenting my family’s history in this land, the “official” state administration does not recognize the existence of my people. The colonial administration removed us from the “Indian” list when we refused to relocate from our traditional territory to incorporated reserves.

For traditional Kichesipirini women, home and homeland meant an attachment to life cycles and systems. We greatly valued our independent lifestyle, our food sovereignty, and our security. We prioritized childrearing that established strong emotional bonds—to each other, to our home, and to our land.

Today, Kichesipirini women still uphold the health of families, but our culture has become progressively difficult to maintain. Continuing colonial assertions have meant that I have become homeless in my own land.

As an invisible and “unrecognized” Indigenous Peoples, we were able to live largely undisturbed in our territory for many years. We continued to harvest directly from our land to provide for our families. Then, the nuclear industry took hold in our territory. When the Chalk River nuclear site was established, we became an invisible and vulnerable population—exposed to a long legacy of contamination and health risks.

In complete ignorance, we continued much of our traditional lifestyle of hunting, fishing, gathering, farming, and nursing our children, all in one of the most contaminated regions known to the world. My own health experience—the loss of five pregnancies and unusual neurological and autoimmune problems—seems to support the fears of many: that there have been an unusually high degree of health problems in this area. As long as we remain “unrecognized,” the world will never fully know the long-term intergenerational effects of the nuclear industry.

I strongly recommend that the current Algonquin Land Claim process be modified to protect all natural persons against encroachments that negatively affect human rights, intergenerational responsibilities, environmental integrity, and social justice principles. When human families are not respected, nationhood, sovereignty, economy, health, and even international peace are compromised.

THE GAMBIA: One Square Meter of Land
Amie Bojang-Sissoho | Program Coordinator-IEC, Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children | The Gambia

I am the oldest of my father’s six surviving children. In our family system, it is understood that men are the decision makers. As a woman, I was not a threat when my father died, as it was understood I would not inherit his property. It took me 23 years of silence and one year of battling to finally gain ownership. As a human rights activist, I had to take a stand, even if it meant risking my own family.

Many have recognized that women’s land tenure, property rights, and control over natural resources are keys to sustainable development, yet cultural norms stand in the way of making this a reality. Doing so requires steadfastness, determination, and women knowing and demanding their rights to landed property.

I learned about my right as a Muslim woman to have a share of my father’s property. Knowing that the teachings of Islam were behind me, I felt empowered to approach religious scholars about my inheritance. To my great disappointment, I was met with arguments from these scholars, from the men—and yes, women—in my family:

“Your uncle took care of the land for your father and now that he is dead, his children want to have a share of the land.”

“Why are you bothering yourself with this knowing that your share as a girl is half that of your brothers’?”

“You don’t need this land, all you’re trying to do is prove your point about women’s rights issues.”

Perhaps this last question was fair. I was trying to prove a point: that women’s land ownership is an important issue for our communities and for our planet. Even if I were to have only one square meter of land, I would be happy.

I met with a group of patriarchs and gave them the option to settle the matter at the family level, instead of facing a legal battle. I had all the evidence to support my case. After a year long ‘fight’, my father’s property was divided. All the children got their piece, be they male or female. Even my father’s two widows were included. We now have control over what belongs rightfully to us.

I share my struggle to access my right to inherit to motivate the many silent women in similar positions to speak out against social and cultural attitudes that continue to deny women their rights. And I hope that as world leaders look for global solutions, the voices and specific needs of women will be highlighted to make sustainable development a reality for them. I anticipate that after all the investment to make ‘sustainable development’ meaningful to the majority of the world’s citizens, strategies to overcome negative socio-cultural norms that disempower women in developing countries will not be over looked.

Recommendation: Prioritize Women's Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health Care

UGANDA: Using the Lense of Population
Ikirimat Grace Odeke | Program Officer, Sexual Health Improvement Project (SHIP) | Uganda

Tackling climate change requires new, innovative solutions and ambitious policies. Dealing with climate change is not simply an issue of reducing CO2 emissions. Any solution must involve political, economic, social, cultural, and ecological concerns. And perhaps the most important contributing factor to this jigsaw puzzle of a problem is population.

Policymakers often have a blind spot when it comes to reducing population growth to mitigate climate change and global warming. My own country of Uganda has one of the highest population growth rates in the world today, mainly caused by high fertility rates. The average woman of reproductive age has six children. Between 1980 and 2010, Uganda’s population increased by 89%. In comparison, the world population increased by 30% during this same time period.

Population growth aggravates issues of access to water, land, food, and other resources. Of course, it is much easier to talk about how areas of high population growth will be impacted by climate change, rather than how population growth itself is a cause of climate change and other environmental problems.

It is critical that countries like Uganda prioritize lowering fertility rates and changing reproductive behaviors. Prioritizing women’s health and helping families access information and resources for family planning is key to protecting our planet. The bottom line is that putting population at the center of discussions about climate change will yield solutions that can push us toward achieving sustainable development on this earth.

USA: Blind on a Sight-Seeing Tour
Jane Roberts | Co-Founder, 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund | USA

Issues of population, reproductive health, and women's empowerment seem to be missing from the Rio+20 agenda. Do you as a woman have or have you in the past had access to family planning and/or safe abortion? Was pregnancy always a joy or was one or more pregnancies a burden? Access to the highest standard of reproductive health and to family planning is your human right as established in Cairo, Egypt in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development and also in the Millennium Development Goals of the year 2000.

Last October the planet reached the 7 billion human population milestone. According to the Population Division of the United Nations, we will reach 9.3 billion by 2050. All the people now and in the future will want food, safe water, energy, access to education, health, and a job. The planet right now is giving way beneath us. Right now a billion people are hungry. A billion people lack access to safe water and sanitation. The oceans are overfished, forests are disappearing, climate change is wreaking havoc with floods and droughts. There are increasing numbers of climate refugees. Look at Pakistan these last two years with enormous widespread floods. Look at the drought in the Sahel region of Africa causing millions to need food aid. There is nothing sustainable about the human impact on the environment now. It is going to get a lot worse. It is going to get ugly. Wars over resources will abound. Women will suffer violence at the hands of the ignorant and frustrated.

Leaving issues of population and of women's access to education and health and to full gender equality in every realm of civil society off the main Rio agenda is akin to being blind on a sight-seeing tour. I urge leaders to put these issues at the top of their agendas!

Recommendation: Ensure Women's Economic and Political Leadership

INDIA: Educate Women to Educate an Entire Generation
Anamikam | Founder, One Billion Literates Foundation | India

My homeland is India—a place where the landscape is as diverse as its people. We speak a large list of languages and dialects, practice a number of religions and traditions, and live amidst lofty mountain peaks, sprawling plains, lush green wilderness, tropical rainforests, and dry deserts. But instead of making every effort to preserve this beauty gifted to us by Mother Nature, we cut down our trees, pollute our soil, water, and air, and relentlessly ruin the ecology of our land.

We must stop this mindless destruction and to do that I believe we must first address the very real problem of education and illiteracy that plagues India. We must focus our efforts on helping to make India’s working population—and especially its women—financially independent by imparting skills and education to citizens. After all, if you were to go with little food and water for days on end, would your priority be protecting and restoring our environment? Or would you prioritize finding food for yourself and those who are near and dear to you?

It has been famously said that, “When you educate a man, you educate a man. But if you educate a woman, you educate an entire generation.”

India’s women and youth are eager to learn, and investing in them will help bridge economic disparity and will help us build a better nation for tomorrow.

SOMALIA: The Backbone of Peace
Marian Hassan | Program Officer, Danish Refugee Council | Somalia

Women are the backbone of every nation. They are the glue that holds and binds. This is as true in my country of Somalia as it is in any other nation.

Ever since the collapse of the central government in late 1990s, Somali women have been involved in mitigating conflicts. They bring people together and rally for peace. Their position within the clan system gives them the ability to bridge clan divisions and to act as a first channel for dialogue between parties in conflict. Women also own most of the small enterprises in Somalia and have shares in some of the large enterprises as well. They have been the sole breadwinners for over two decades and have taken care of families in the midst of chaos and terror. They have funded peace talks and contributed financially.

Many women peace activists have found the struggle for peace inextricably linked to that of women’s rights. I have been working in the field of peacebuilding and conflict resolution for years, and I have seen what women are capable of doing. The devastating part is that they sacrifice everything to mobilize peace talks, yet they are never included in the decision-making forums where peace accords are negotiated.

When women are mobilized and empowered, they can work wonders. They can be good leaders because mostly women are more honest than men. Women are dedicated, and they are usually on the forefront of every mediation. They go to war zones, sometimes going to places where access is difficult.

In Somalia, civil society organizations led by women have achieved much in the past two decades. They have helped disempower warlords and have reduced the significance of clan affiliation. They have ensured civil society representation, which is essential to any peace and reconciliation process. But Somali women still face constraints in breaking through gender-based inequalities, cultural ideals, and practical barriers to achieve equal political participation.

We need to be listened to, to be included in the decision-making committees. We need to hold positions within the government, and our voices and ideas should matter on the topic of sustainable development.

Women’s perspective and experience matter when we talk about creating an everlasting peace—stability in every country. As long as our efforts go unrecognized, countries will suffer and we won’t reach sustainable development goals and world peace. I hope the leaders who are meeting at Rio+20 will listen to and accept the support of women worldwide.

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