My colleague and I rode the rough, volcanic black rock roads of Goma, a city in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, to a series of small wooden houses. Here, an association formed mainly of women was very busy working to build new, improved cookstoves by hand to make them nearly smoke free and more environmentally friendly.
Women of all ages toiled at various stations along the production chain. The female head of the association introduced us to the women and men pounding the clay that forms the inside of the cookstoves, shaping the metal of the outer shells, and decorating the finished product. This dynamic and knowledgeable group was improving livelihoods while protecting the environment—one cookstove at a time.
And while I’m thrilled with the environmental benefits of the project, I’m also humbled and inspired by the integral role women play in carrying out the initiative.
Women’s extensive experience makes them an invaluable source of knowledge and expertise on environmental management and appropriate actions. They are the main users of natural resources through their work in agriculture, fuelwood, and water collection for household consumption purposes. Women are therefore powerful agents of change and have huge potential to impact sustainable development and conservation.
Unfortunately, some communities around the world don’t always include women or look to them for guidance when discussing conservation policy or other green initiatives. That’s why I’m focused on integrating women in all spheres of WWF’s work. Striving to provide equitable access to opportunities and resources for all simply makes sense as we all work towards making the world a more sustainable and equal place, where people and nature live in harmony.
Helping women and families by protecting the environment
In Goma, women now play an essential role in improving cookstoves—and the environment. The population depends heavily on charcoal as its cooking fuel, but that fuel comes primarily from the forests of Virunga National Park, home to the critically endangered mountain gorilla. To prevent deforestation, protect habitat, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, WWF and our partners launched a program to increase the number of households using energy-efficient stoves.
The program offers an excellent opportunity to bring women into the fold and close some gender gaps.
Several of the women taking part are single mothers trying to provide for their family, put food on the table, send their children to school, and pay for health care. The association allows them to earn a living, learn new skills, and receive training to raise awareness and knowledge of the links between their enterprise and the protection of the environment they so closely depend on. They receive training on how to produce, market, and sell improved cookstoves, learn to become entrepreneurs, and acquire organizational and business skills.
And they’ve seen results: economically, families using a more efficient stove cut their fuel bill in half. Environmentally, they’re cutting emissions and saving thousands of acres of Virunga’s forest each year.
Gender equality matters in conservation
Gender equality and environmental sustainability go hand in hand. And it’s about everyone: women, men, boys, and girls and the roles they play and the positions they hold in society. Achieving sustainable and equitable societies means recognizing the value that each member of society—women, men, and youth—bring to the table when it comes to the use and management of resources, and how that affects the health and wellbeing of people and the environment.
When we include women in decision-making processes and activities that lead to better environmental practices, as we do in Goma, we find more balanced and equitable solutions to conservation challenges.