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What do desertification and women have to do with each other?

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Águeda García de Durango
Editor-in-Chief of iAgua and Smart Water Magazine. Degree in Environmental Sciences.

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  • What do desertification and women have to do with each other?

The role of women as agents of change has an important place in the programmes of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD),  established in 1994.

In September of 2017, the UNCCD prepared a Gender Action Plan, a document aimed to achieve gender equality in all issues related to women's empowerment at all levels of decision making and implementation of the convention.

Until 2019, countries and stakeholders affected by desertification and drought, as well as those that provide funding support validated the effectiveness of these guidelines. Then, in 2019, and based on the lessons learned, governments will review the plan to ensure that it can support the desired changes until 2030.

According to Monique Barbut, Executive Secretary of the UNCCD, 'Affected countries are establishing voluntary national objectives to restore degraded lands. But ensuring that women contribute effectively and benefit from the recovery of degraded land will require more than that. It requires the focused and constant support of development partners. It needs the unwavering commitment and collaboration of inter-governmental, international, and civil society organisations. It requires foundations, companies and private investors to adopt a long term vision. And finally, it needs our solidarity and support to households, families, communities, governments, and local and regional authorities'.

'Women are strategic agents of change and play a central role in the use and care of land resources, in particular in land-dependent communities'

Context and rationale

Why are women essential to apply the Convention? Their participation is crucial in several areas, such as awareness-raising, design and implementation of programmes, decision-making processes at the local level, and capacity-building, education and public awareness.

In addition, and quoting the Gender Action Plan, 'Women are strategic agents of change and play a central role in the use and care of land resources, in particular in land-dependent communities. Women rely on land resources to provide the household needs for food, water and energy, which makes them more dependent on natural resources than men; yet most women neither own nor have control over these resources. Less than 20 per cent of land holders worldwide are women, and only 13 per cent of the land users who make the major decisions on agricultural land are women. On the other hand, women are a significant labour force and are guardians of valuable traditional and indigenous knowledge on land use. But these advantages do not benefit them. Globally, women make up 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force.

In many poor countries, more than 95 per cent of all economically active women work in agriculture. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, women hold 10 per cent of the credit available to smallholder agriculture. Similarly, female farmers receive only 5 per cent of agricultural extension services, and only 15 per cent of agricultural extension officers are women'.

Priorities for action

According to the plan, the key obstacles associated with desertification, land degradation and drought are common to women and girls in the affected developing countries. They offer a point of convergence for focused action, and whereas measures may vary across regions and their circumstances, the trend is towards consistent thematic areas. Thus, the plan outlines the following priority thematic areas:

  • Participation in decisions taken during the design, planning, implementation and evaluation of initiatives to implement the Convention.
  • Integrate women's economic empowerment in UNCCD implementation activities, in order to eradicate their extreme poverty.
  • Strengthening women’s land rights and access to resources.​

Mechanisms for implementation

The following tools are proposed as mechanisms for implementation:

  • Working with and through women's organisations: Women’s organizations are powerful mechanisms for correcting gender inequalities, and a way for parties to collaborate with local organisations.
  • Developing strategic partnerships to support implementation: partnerships with governments and local entities, as well as with national and regional authorities, are vital for interventions at ground level. The partnerships focus on obtaining resources for women involved in combating desertification and mitigating the effects of drought.
  • Mobilise financial resources needed to address gender inequality in UNCCD implementation, including national action programmes and land degradation neutrality. To this effect, we should note that 'UNCCD Parties that have deliberately financed women’s involvement or activities in implementation have reported high returns from their investment'.
  • Monitoring and reporting: to assess progress, gaps and challenges as well as to capture lessons learned. This ensures that interventions deliver meaningful results for women effectively in accordance with their needs and priorities, contribute to sustainable land management, and do not exacerbate gender inequalities.

A focused and systematic approach to bridge the gender inequalities linked to women’s land use and management can improve the livelihoods of women and girls and their families, and enhance their resilience to drought. Of course, it has been demonstrated that gender equality, women's empowerment and their full and equal participation in the economy and its leadership are key to ensure sustainable development, and improve significantly economic growth and productivity.

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