In the late 1970s, the Yatenga plateau in Burkina Faso was afflicted with droughts. When the rains did come, the water quickly disappeared underground, out of reach. The Mossi people longed for their ancestral times when rich trade kingdoms flourished and proud warriors were celebrated in songs. But with prolonged agricultural crises, many Mossi villagers became “environmental refugees”–people surrendering their homes to a cruel invader: the drought.
Then, a non-governmental association, known as the Naam groups, took matters into their own hands. Community organizers worked with youth, women and men to create a network of community development councils until there was a Naam Federation extending over the entire region.
The Naam groups held meetings where everyone was supposed to join in the effort to save their communities. After many discussions, some women became exasperated because there was little progress. As one woman told me, “The men were just complaining. They said there is nothing to eat. They talked about the dying cattle, deforestation, and how the young men were leaving. But no one had solutions.”
As the story goes, one woman, Minata from Somiaga, rose from her seat. In the midst of the passionate speeches, she said in a calm voice, “What you say is fine, but it is useless to talk about livestock and food when there is no water. The first problem is that we have no water. We women are going to find out how to get it.” And she sat down. Everyone looked at each other. There was a long silence. They were amazed at how simple the solution really was.
Minata’s legend began from that time. She helped to organize the Naam women’s groups, which took the lead in solving the water problem. The women said that they would build huge traditional dams, made of mud and rocks, to catch rainwater. Then, they would plant trees around them, feed the cattle, and dig gardens. This would mean days of carrying earth in baskets on their heads and moving boulders. When the men hesitated to cooperate, the women threatened to leave their homes and return to their parents’ villages. This got the men’s attention and they pitched in to help. Donors provided technical help and vehicles. Naam groups that had built “Mother dams” helped other villages build “daughter dams” until they covered the entire plateau.
The story of the Mossi women’s dams illustrates the potential of what can be done when women have a say in environmental management. Yet, few national programs have learned this lesson. Some governments have focused attention on women’s roles in safe drinking water and domestic water supply, but they often overlook the gender bias in “big” issues like roads and dams, urban infrastructure and climate change treaties.
Women’s empowerment has been highlighted in consultations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the “Post-2015” development agenda that will reset the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire. UN Women and the World Bank reports advocate that gender equality should not be a side issue to environment planning. Instead, these UN bodies see it as the most strategic “fix” governments can make to accelerate progress on food security, energy, sustainable cities and human settlements, land degradation and drought.
Indeed, from the micro ecology of the home to the global ecological system, women’s participation in environment management and sustainable development is essential. Women’s groups claim their right to speak about these issues as workers and leaders who have helped to focus the world’s attention on the right priorities. Sometimes this has happened at large UN conferences; on other occasions, it has taken place at small community meetings led by a lone woman’s voice.