By Kudzai Makombe
A drive through any village in southern African reveals a dry, sandy, semi-desert landscape, almost devoid of trees with cattle and goats scrounging on what little grass and shrubs there are.

Women constitute 80 percent of the rural population in Zimbabwe, a situation which applies in all of the other countries of the region. As such, they are caretakers of the environment, but in most cases, they also destroy the very environment which they are trying to look after.

Nowhere is the problem of siltation, deforestation, soil erosion, desertification and overgrazing more evident and serious than in the rural areas.

Women’s contribution to environmental degradation is for sheer survival. Their traditional daily chores of gathering firewood and preparing the fields are major factors.

According to Sharon Capeling-Alakija, Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, “in much of the developing world, management of the natural resource base has become almost exclusively the responsibility of women.”

However, this is thwarted by the fact that most of the female rural population is poor. The impact of desertification and deforestation has already resulted in low agricultural productivity which threatens the security of the poor, the majority of whom are women. Desperate for scarce resources, they scrounge what they can from the land to survive by cutting down trees for firewood and shelter or clearing land for planting or panning for gold.

In Tanzania, the increasing demand for land for food production and export crops has resulted in an average of 400 000 hectares of forest being cleared annually for agriculture and related activities. Wood fuel accounts for 91.4 percent of total energy consumption in Tanzania.

In Botswana, Gladys Matome, a mother of five, says, “I remember not many years ago when gathering firewood wasn’t really considered bard work. Now we have to walk miles to find any wood, and in most cases all we find are small twigs. It takes a lot of time and in many cases I am tempted to cut down the nearest tree.”

Obviously many other villagers have succumbed to the same temptation. With almost constant droughts and the Kalahari desert already covering two-thirds of Botswana, the cutting down of trees is adding to this long term problem in a country where wood accounts for over 95 percent of fuel consumption.

Zimbabwean women make up 70 percent of total agricultural labour. A survey in 1991 found that about 51 percent of the 800,000 households in rural areas were headed by women. In most cases, they are the ones hardest hit by environmental crises like the current drought because it is they who meet the household needs.

However, the problem of environmental degradation is not one which is exclusive to rural women. In Zimbabwe’s urban areas poor women living in squatter camps and makeshift homes with no water supplies often resort to washing clothes and bathing in small rivers flowing through the cities.

This is especially the case with the Mukuvusi River in Harare which flows through both residential and industrial areas. A chemical fertilizer producing company in Harare has for many years been responsible for the discharge of chemical pollutants into the river. However, additional pollution from washing powders used by women in the river also contributes to the problem.

Sithembile Nyoni, Project Officer and coordinator of The Regional Network of Environmental Experts (ZERO), says, “Yes, women are to blame for cutting down firewood and for washing and bathing in rivers, but given their circumstances, they are forced to do so by society.”

Mona Munyikwa, a training officer with an NGO in Bulawayo, echoes the same sentiments. “It is all very well to talk about deforestation and desertification, but people have to cook. A rural woman who wants to look after her family properly has no choice but to cut trees, particularly when no viable options are being offered or actively considered.”

The relationship between women and the environment is clear. What then, are the solutions to their problems of protection and survival?

A post-Earth Summit workshop, the South/South Environmental Linkage Project, focusing on peasant farmers and the environment, was recently held in Harare. At the workshop, rural women from throughout the region expressed the opinion that too little attention is being focused on their problems of fuel and water requirements.

They also voiced the concern that too much money and energy was being spent on such issues as of ozone depletion – issues which many of them did not even understand – by their governments rather than the concerns of women and environment at grassroots level.

There were strong feelings expressed about ownership and control of resources at a household level being in the hands of the men, while the actual use of the resources is in the hands of women.

This is the feminization of poverty. Women are simply regarded as dependents of males. Governments, NGO’s and other aid agencies need to realize that in order to help women solve problems of environmental degradation, they need to involve them more in control of resources. All too often the development approach is aimed at men in the rural communities under the assumption that men do the agricultural work in the household.

However, as realization of the close relationship between women and the environment grows, more efforts are being made to involve women in its preservation.

The Women in Community Forestry Project in Tanzania is an example.

According to Monica Mhavile, a Community Development worker, “In the beginning we made no efforts to reach women, and often our fieldworkers forgot to speak to women when they visited people’s homes!’

Now, efforts are being made to get to know more about women’s problems and needs. In most cases women find it difficult to participate or benefit from their efforts due to their husbands’ control.

A forestry programme was started where women were encouraged to start tree growing groups. In areas where natural woodlands are still plentiful, help is given to the villagers to utilize them effectively while ensuring that women have access to everything they collect such as food, medicine, fuel and building poles, from woodland areas.

Another success story where women have achieved greater control of their resources is in Malawi.

More than 1.5 rural Malawians are now served by over 8,000 boreholes and shallow wells fitted with hand pumps. The challenge for the villagers lies not in the installation of the hand pumps, but to keep them flowing. Under a project run by the government and funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank, villagers are trained to maintain hand pumps. Each pump is tended by a caretaker and two assistants – the majority of whom are women.

The examples of Tanzania and Malawi should be seriously considered by other southern African countries and within the developing world. In this may lie the key to solving some of the environmental problems facing the world today. (SARDC)

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