Empowered women, environmental care in Iran

women baking bread
Women of Esfarayen, Iran baking traditional bread. Photo: Sadaf Nikzad/UNDP in Iran

Zahra, a woman in her mid-twenties, is from a village in Esfarayen Country in the North Khorasan Province of Iran.  Finding work was difficult, and she worried about her family.

“We needed to feed our children,” Zahra continued, “but sadly it was so hard to find a job. And as a woman I could not contribute to the wellbeing of my family.”

Severe desertification was forcing local herders to take their flocks to other areas for long periods of time and making arable farming difficult. In addition to the effects of desertification, people’s livelihoods are also challenged by a country-wide lack of jobs. In Iran, around three million people are unemployed and there is very low growth overall.


  • 63 Village Development Groups have been established, with nearly 50% female members.
  • A set of micro-credit/saving schemes have funded 740 loans for income generation.
  • Local empowerment has led to the participatory rehabilitation and conservation of 111,572 hectares of degraded areas.
  • By the end of 2015, the project will expand to 250 VDGs, targeting 298 villages and 1,189,540 hectares of land.

“At one point my husband and I thought about leaving our hometown behind,” recalled Zahra. “It felt as though it was the only option we had left.”

Today, the situation in Esfarayen has changed. In 2014, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and UNDP introduced the Carbon Sequestration Project (CSP) in this area.

Iran is a country that has been significantly affected by the negative impact of desertification. Since 2003, the Iranian Forest, Range and Watershed Organization (FRWO) and UNDP have been working together to help “green” the land and sustainably develop large tracts of the Iranian rangeland plains. The CSP is working to establish within communities the connection between environmental rehabilitation and poverty reduction and to demonstrate models of community-based approaches to natural resource management.

At the heart of the Carbon Sequestration Project lies a simple goal – women’s empowerment – not only as a human right, but also because empowered women are a pathway to achieving sustainable development for their communities.

Gender empowerment and eradication of poverty are essential to economic and social development. The project has adopted a special technique to empower vulnerable groups, especially women. It is called social mobilization and micro credit – a model that won the best prize in the 2005 Poverty Alleviation Conference.

The social mobilization and micro credit approach identifies vulnerable families in a community and organizes them into groups of up to twenty persons. The project trains organizers of the Village Development Groups (VDGs) in various income-generating and cooperative activities. Organizers also help villagers borrow funds to use as seed money for income generating activities, such as crafts, environmentally-friendly husbandry, or purchasing, growing and selling seedlings to re-plant their parched parcel of land.

Zahra was trained in handicrafts, food processing and sewing and has been able to put her new skills into practice.  “What once seemed impossible is now possible. As a woman, I am being trained to contribute to my community and break the cycle of poverty,” said Zahra.

Within a year, the Village Development Groups are sufficiently active to generate increased income. The groups also collaborate on more extensive cooperative and social capital projects. Consequently, the community benefits from best-practices in management and overall development increases.  With more disposable income, village groups then turn their attention to protecting rather than destroying their own environment.

Zahra and other motivated women from the village, who had been trained and empowered under the Carbon Sequestration Project, were able to showcase their work and talents, ranging from handicrafts to traditional culinary delights, at a recent exhibition.

"I think the key factors for success of this project," said Zahra, "is cooperation and involvement of women – we are truly working together as a community." Zahra regularly attends workshops to improve herself and is being trained in different fields, which allows her to contribute not only to the well-being of her own family, but also that of her community.

“Today I stand here – proud and happy,” says Zahra. “I have hope again in the future. I feel empowered.”

What started as a pilot project in 2011, with 63 VDGs in South Khorassan, has now been expanded to other provinces such as Zahra’s. By the end of 2015, the CSP aims to establish 250 VDGs targeting 298 villages and 1,189,540 hectares of land.

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