Dr Oyun Sanjaasuren – A win for women at the environment table
Recently the first United Nations Environment Assembly was held in Nairobi. This was the biggest ever meeting in Africa on environment hosted by UNEP but involving all other UN agencies including UN Women that was attended by among other President Uhuru Kenyatta and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
The meeting recognised the role that women play in environmental sustainability and through this honoured women by picking a female as its first president.
Dr Oyun Sanjaasuren, Minister of Environment and Green Development of Mongolia, hence became the first woman President of the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA).
Sanjaasuren took over from Hassan Abdel-Gadir Hilal, Minister of Environment and Forestry in Sudan and the outgoing President of Governing Council.
Sanjaasuren brings in a wealth of experience in environmentalism and political consensus-building to the new vital role. She has been continuously elected Member of Parliament since joining politics in 1998, pushing crucial legislation in areas such as anti-corruption and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
From 2005 to 2008 she chaired the Mongolian Parliament’s sub-committee on the Millennium Development Goals and poverty reduction. She has been the leader of the Civil Will Green Party since 2000. When Sanjaasuren took up the environment portfolio in 2012, environment became one of the priority agendas of the Mongolian government, which hosted World Environment Day in 2013.
Mongolia joined the Partnership for Action on Green Economy (PAGE) during the event, and has pledged to transition to a green future by promoting renewable energy, sustainable tourism and tackling air pollution, among other measures. Mongolia’s Parliament recently approved the country’s Green Development Strategy.
Sanjaasuren is also the Vice-Chair of Mongolia’s National Committee on Sustainable Development, and her ministry is in charge of formulating Mongolia’s post-2015 development goals.
Sanjaasuren holds a doctorate in Earth Sciences from Cambridge University, United Kingdom, and a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science in Geochemistry from Charles University, Czech Republic.
She is the founder and head of the Zorig Foundation, a Mongolian organisation dedicated to the advancement of democracy and youth education. She is married with three children.
In her acceptance speech, Sanjaasuren assured the delegates and United Nations member states of a new world body that places environmental issues at the heart of international affairs and provides fresh impetus to tackle growing global challenges.
“I am humbled and honoured to take up this top most mantle to steer the world towards a life of dignity for all, which is safe environment. With your support and dedication, I know we shall overcome the challenges and achieve the dream that we all yearn for,” said Sanjaasuren.
“Theongoing discussions on the Post-2015 development agenda and sustainable development goals will need to take into account universal concerns with a universal ambition through common but differentiated responsibilities, recognizing that each country starts with a different baseline of challenges, needs, priorities, and response capabilities,” reiterated Sanjaasuren
She added: “Even though we face a daunting task, I am convinced these challenges can be tackled, both as individual issues and through cross-cutting approaches. Environmental, social, and economic opportunities, when combined, can have mutually reinforcing outcomes for sustainable development. Through integration of the three dimensions it will be possible to achieve the necessary transformative change and bring many of the issues we face under the umbrella of sustainable development.”
Her high position comes a time that women remain largely absent in levels of policy formulation and decision making in natural resources and environmental management, conservation, protection and rehabilitation.
Women’s experience and skills in advocacy and monitoring of proper natural and resource management too often remain marginalized in policy and decision making bodies.
This can be seen at environmental related agencies at the managerial level and even in educational institutions related to environment. Very few women are trained as professional natural resource managers with policy-making capacities, such as land-use planners, agriculturalists, foresters, marine scientists and environmental lawyers.
Even in cases where women are trained as professional natural managers, they are often underrepresented in formal institutions with policy-making capacities at the national, regional and international levels.
Often women are assumed not to be equal participants in the management of financial and corporate institutions whose decision-making most significantly affects environmental quality.
However, despite the fact that gender discrimination has barred women from the top echelons of policy and decision making, it must be noted that in most rural African communities, women play a key role in the minute details of natural resource management and achieving food security. They often grow process, manage and market food as well as other natural resources. They are generally responsible for small livestock, vegetable, gardens and collecting fuel, fodder and water as well as carrying out their traditional reproductive roles.
Furthermore, there are institutional weaknesses in coordination between women’s non-governmental organizations and national institutions dealing with environmental issues, despite the rapid growth and visibility of women’s non-governmental organizations working on these issues at all levels.
The truth of the matter is that women have often played leadership roles or taken the lead in promoting an environmental ethic, reducing resource use, reusing and recycling resources to minimize waste and excessive consumption.
It must be noted that gender is a critical variable in shaping processes for ecological change, viable livelihoods and prospects of sustainable development. In addition, women’s contributions to environmental management, including through grass-roots and youth campaigns to protect the environment, have often taken place at the local level, where decentralized action on environmental issues is most needed and decisive.
According to Dr Janet Kabeberi, head of Gender and Social Safeguard Unit at UNEP, “women, especially indigenous women, have particular knowledge of ecological linkages and fragile ecosystem management”.
“In general, women in many communities provide the main labour force subsistence production, including production of sea-food; hence their role is crucial to the provision of food and nutrition,” Kabeberi notes.
She reiterates the need for enhancement of subsistence and informal sectors and the preservation of the environment.
“In certain regions, women are generally the most stable members of the community, as men often pursue work in distant locations, leaving women to safeguard the natural environment and ensure adequate sustainable resource allocation within the household and the community,” Kabeberi observes.
She notes that women’s participation and leadership is essential for environmental management, actions which require a holistic, multidisciplinary and intersectoral strategic approach.
Sahle-Work Zewde, Director General UN Office in Nairobi notes that United Nations global conferences on development including the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing acknowledged that sustainable development policies that do not involve women and men alike cannot succeed in the long run.
Zewde emphasizes effective participation of women in the generation of knowledge, environmental education in decision-making and management at all levels are key in achieving green economy.
She defines green economy as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.
“A green economy could also help in sustainably managing natural resources in the face of increasing demands for food, fuel and other commodities. This is why women experiences and contributions to an ecologically sound environment must therefore be central to the agenda for the twenty-first century,” Zewde reiterates.
According to Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director UN Women Kenya Country office, sustainable development will be an elusive goal unless women’s contribution to environmental management is recognised and supported.
Puri says in addressing the lack of adequate recognition and support for women’s contribution to conservation and management of natural resources and safeguarding the environment, governments and other actors must strive in promoting and facilitating women for an active course of action.
“Mainstreaming a gender perspective in all policies and programmes including appropriate, analysis of the effects on women and men respectively, before decisions are taken is the only way to win this war on environmental menace,” advices Puri.
She alludes to the fact that it is the only way for indigenous women leeway to access to information and education including areas of science, technology and economics.
It is high time women’s capacity is enhanced so that their knowledge, skills and opportunities for participation in environmental projects improves..