A sustainable future comes with women changemakers

March 7, 2022

Solar engineer Gentiana Alija Shala discusses a project with her team. Photo: UNDP Kosovo* / Mrinë Godanca

Climate change is not gender-neutral.

This was a hot topic at last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26). Delegates stressed that climate action needs to invest more in women and girls, so that they could create more opportunities against existing inequalities and multiple socio-economic and political barriers.

Recognizing women’s contributions to the survival of the planet and sustainable development is still limited and lacking. Many women have been perceived as more vulnerable than men when encountering and responding to climate disasters, and they are often described as victims in the scenes of climate change. But women deserve to be viewed equally as powerful leaders and change-makers in the context of climate change and disaster risk reduction. There is strong evidence that women’s leadership is key to successful climate action.

From local activism to the halls of science, women are demonstrating a sustainable future can be achieved through their work and passion for science, nature and the earth. In doing so, they show other women and girls to be more assertive about their rights, self-sufficient and able to make a difference.

Photos: UNDP Kazakhstan / Alexey Malchenko

Aiymgul Kerimray
 is an ecologist and a researcher of urban air quality and fuel poverty at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Kazakhstan. She is also an expert working on UNDP’s projects on climate change. Her current project studies the contributing sources to the level of air pollution in Almaty by analyzing a chemical composition of fine particulate matter. When asked about the current air quality in Kazakhstan, she replies,

“I think we should set goals that are more realistic. For instance, to aim to reduce trends of concentration levels of air pollutants, which will also lead to a decrease of greenhouse gases concentration, as we have not observed any downward trend in recent years. The air quality in winter 2021 in Almaty was worse than in 2020.”

She also looks at the use of fuel in the household sector, including whether access alone is an issue in choosing clean cooking fuels in India, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. She helped develop the roadmap prepared by the International Energy Agency on transition to cleaner fuels in the household sector of Kazakhstan.

She thinks it is essential to address gender barriers impeding women’s and girls’ advancement in science, and to put the state measures in place which help them to be more engaged in the field.

“We know that in our patriarchal society women usually do more domestic work than men. Of course, this prevents women from pursuing their career path.”

Read more about her story here.  

Photo: UNDP Kosovo / Mustafa Kukaj

Photos: UNDP Kosovo / Mrinë Godanca

Gentiana Alija Shala
 is a solar energy engineer in Kosovo*, where she is the founder and only woman CEO out of more than a dozen solar companies. With ambition and creativity, she went against the gender grain and slowly built her company, which now has three engineers on its staff, all of them women, and energy projects based in many different countries.

Gentiana sees the potential of renewable energy in Kosovo, where progress towards such a shift has been slow partly due to heavy dependence on its large coal reserves, and is determined to do her part in speeding things up.

"A big problem we have in Kosovo is that many don't see the value of solar energy and don't trust it," she explains.

"The way I see it, my role is to promote the solar energy sector in Kosovo; it's not technically my job but I do it passionately because my vision in light of the climate crisis is to contribute to the transition from coal dependency towards increased use of renewable energy."

She is also an active member of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) network. An environmentalist and feminist, she encourages other women to start their careers in the STEM fields. Knowing the importance of role models in personal development, she tries to set an example for her colleagues as well as other women in her line of work and beyond.

She has overcome her own inferiority complex by actively focusing on what makes her feel more confident throughout her professional journey as a young woman. Her advice to young women suffering from a similar issue is to pay more attention to everyday things that make them feel confident.

Read more about Gentiana’s journey as a solar energy engineer.

Photos: UNDP Georgia / Anka Gujabidze

Shorena Chapurishvili
 is a local climate activist from a small Georgian town along the Zemo Khodashins Khevi riverbed.

Over the past years, floods have become more frequent and severe. When the river floods, pastures, farming plots,houses and roads are under threat, affecting the livelihoods of more than 2,000 people. But the damage extends beyond agricultural, infrastructure and personal loss. Flooding could also damage the ancient walls and courtyard of the Alaverdi Cathedral, a majestic 11th-century monument nominated for UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

“The river used to be much smaller only ten years ago, Shorena says. You can see the remains of walls that would restrain it before. Now, they are almost in the center of the riverbed.” 

Shorena, a former biology and chemistry teacher, is now the head of local NGO ‘Kakheti’. In 2021, it received a grant from UNDP to establish a community-based rapid response squad that will serve three villages alongside Zemo Khodashnis Khevi, informing people what to do to stay safe before, during and after floods. Her work has sparked the interest of surrounding villages: Self-governance representatives, schools and citizens are ready to join or support the emergency response squad when it becomes fully operational this spring.

Shorena works with local councils and schools, engaging teachers and community organizations, and has seen the power of women in this fight to climate-proof the world.

“Women and youth can play a game-changing role. They form a public opinion and influence their families and are very effective in spreading the message.” 

She has a point here; women drive most of the local climate education projects supported by UNDP.

Read more about how she and her work are inspiring local residents to work on building a resilient society here.

Photos: UNDP Uzbekistan

Galina Valdislavovna Stulina is a soil scientist from Uzbekistan who currently focuses on the Aral Sea region. Her university and PhD work was about water, soil and modeling – especially around issues of water consumption and the impact of climate change on it.

For most of the expeditions taken along the dried seabed, she was the only woman. Now, however, she’s leading those expeditions, including recent ones supported by UNDP.  Together with other experts, she covered the studied 1.2 million hectares in the Aral Sea region, from the water's edge to the historical sea level.

Galina explains that there is still hope in the Aral Sea region despite degrading land situations and continuing desertification. Currently efforts are underway to green the seabed to improve the strength of local land and increase its resilience to climate change. 

“What is laid there now should be the basis for the future, and there should be some kind of sustainability. This is what the hope means.”

Galina recommends girls and women starting their work in science to be self-sufficient, and supported.

“If you are not supported in your life, then it will be simply impossible for you to immerse in your trade. A woman should be self-sufficient in any profession, especially in science. She should be confident in herself, she should know that she is a scientist, and should be respected.”

She further advises that a woman of science needs good organization to have everything balanced in her life.

Follow her journey as a soil scientist and her work in the Aral sea region here

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”.

* References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999).