“African women, in general, need to know that it’s OK for them to be the way they are – to see the way they are as a strength and to be liberated from fear and silence” – Wangari Muta Maathai
What is a society without women? Have you ever imagined the existence of the universe without them?
The active contribution of the strengths and skills of women would create a more developed society. For instance, research by Forbes has revealed that countries, where the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been contained, have women as the head of their governments. Thus, women play great roles in the immediate society they find themselves and the world at large when given the chance to do so.
Women have played very important roles in peacebuilding as well. Indeed, Wangari Muta Maathai is an excellent example of women peacebuilders who have made an impact under difficult conditions.
Wangari was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize of 2004 for her contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace” becoming the first black African woman to receive the prestigious honour. She was a political activist, environmentalist and prolific writer. Born in 1940 in Kenya, Wangari obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Mount St Scholastica and Master’s degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Pittsburgh both in the United States. She went on to get a PhD in Veterinary Anatomy from the University of Kenya becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to do so. She began a career in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and became an associate professor in 1977. A hardworking woman, Wangari’s activism in favour of women development led her to become the Chairman of the National Council of Women in Kenya. She was able to effortlessly attain work-life balance by combining her professional achievements with raising a family. Wangari passed away in September 2011 after raising the bar for African women.
Wangari was a major force to be reckoned with the Kenyan political space serving as an opposition politician to the Daniel Arap Moi’s regime. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 to fight deforestation which threatened the means of subsistence of the agricultural population in Kenya. Through the movement, she advocated for the planting of trees and adoption of ecological best practices thus becoming an inspiration for tree-planting campaigns across the world.
Wangari’s life and work showcase several lessons that we could imbibe as young peacebuilders:
1) Active participation locally and internationally: Wangari was influential in fighting for democracy and conservation in her local context in Kenya but she was also very committed internationally. She served on the boards of different organizations including the United Nation’s Secretary-General Advisory Board on Disarmament where she volunteered to provide counsel to the Secretary-General on matters relating to Register of Conventional Arms, good governance and peacebuilding in West Africa, anti-personnel land mines and small arms.
2) Fight to protect the environment: Environmental conversation is a practice by which humans save their immediate environment from disintegrating. When an environment is conserved, it is obtainable that plants and animals will flourish accordingly since humans depend on them for survival. This kind of failure in the ecosystem can come in different forms such as loss of animals of different species, pollution of all kinds and human activities. Maathai was as well an advocate for human rights issues about women and the prevention of AIDS. Whatever our primary focuses as peacebuilders, we must include the environmental dimension to ensure our planet is more sustainable and safe for future generations.
3) Empower women and girls: Wangari did not shy away from participating actively in politics despite her gender thus leading to her success with her sweeping victory in the Kenyan National Assembly in 2002. She went on to become the Assistant Minister of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in her country. Women and girls have a lot to offer that is often swept under the carpet particularly in the patriarchal nature of African societies. Peacebuilders should focus on educating the girl child and ensuring a level playing field for women to contribute to the development of their societies.
4) Think globally and act locally: Wangari embodied this idea of thinking globally and acting locally. Her local organisation, Green Belt Movement inspired village women to plant trees in their local community was just her local idea of beautifying the community. By focusing on making a change in her local context, Wangari got the chance to create a global impact on environmental conservation and democracy. As peacebuilders, no matter the role you are playing in the various institutions where you belong, effortlessly put in your best no matter how hard it may seem as you never know when the international spotlight would shine on you just like it did on Wangari.
Anthonia Folashade Adetayo,
Member, Welfare Unit,
Building Blocks for Peace Foundation