The international community has endorsed several plans of action for the full integration of women in all development activities. The Beijing Conference concluded that unless the contribution of women to the environment and resource management is recognized and supported, sustainable development would remain elusive.

In Africa women are primary resource users and most of the responsibility for growing and collecting food, medicines, fuel, housing materials, providing cash income for schooling, health care and other family needs rests on their shoulders. As such, they do much of the work needed to maintain or restore the environment.

In Africa women produce up to 80 per cent of the basic food commodities. In addition, their activities directly affect the environment, given that women have traditionally been responsible for bringing water and wood to the household. Women have the main responsibility for the health and nutrition of their families. They have multiple roles, and have to respond to family, economic and social expectations at the same time. They show imagination in doing so and are innovative and capable of developing a wide range of activities within the framework of the social economy (commercial and non-commercial).

Because of the nature of their responsibilities and direct dependence on land-based resources, they are also the hardest hit by desertification, deforestation and misguided economic and development policies. Women may also be agents of environmental degradation by the nature of their activities and responsibilities. They can have an equally enormous impact on conservation because of their multiple roles. Their special knowledge of the environment is derived from growing food, collecting fodder, gathering firewood and water, caring for children, the sick and the elderly, tending domestic animals and gathering medicines. African women are also usually responsible for marketing agricultural produce. In Africa they do up to three-quarters of all agricultural work in addition to domestic responsibilities.

Throughout Africa, women are actively involved in a wide range of forest-related activities, both those of a spontaneous nature and those fostered through development projects and programmes. In fact, with the exclusion of industrial timber and charcoal production, African women are the protagonists in activities related to the management and use of forest resources. Particularly important is the gathering of fuel wood, for domestic energy, as well as fruits, leaves, gums and medicinal and food products both for household use and sale in local markets. Women’s participation in the production and dissemination of fuel-efficient cook stoves, in agroforestry, tree nurseries and horticulture are also well-documented. Tangible efforts are needed to train more women in forestry and natural resource activities in order to enhance their participation at all levels – from the grassroots to international policy.

In Africa, the lives of women have not changed in a meaningful way. On average, they spend eight hours a day gathering firewood and continue to do that while still subjected to domestic violence. Women’s employment remains limited to relatively few fields and relatively low-level jobs. Women and children are also the ones who suffer most as a result of wars, political and ethnic conflicts

African women are subjected to specific constraints due to gender inequalities, and these constraints shape the results they obtain. The constraints most frequently identified are lack of access to credit and land, poverty, marginalization, discriminatory and inadequate laws, lack of access to decision-making power, unjust and unfair cultural practices, women’s heavy workload, lack of education and training and also the way in which women’s activities are structured.

Key concerns for promoting women’s participation in natural resource development activities should focus on their access to and control over resources. Activities that enhance women’s participation in sustainable development should emphasize the importance of two major types of resources: land and trees in addition to other natural resources, and information and knowledge. Building on women’s existing knowledge and environmental management skills is fundamental for their empowerment, allowing them to take control of their lives.