By Christina Lowery
This op-ed by Christina Lowery was published in the Women's Media Center in April 2023
The climate crisis is destroying lives, homes, and livelihoods, but its impacts are unequal, harming some populations and regions with far greater severity than others. Shockingly, 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women and girls, according to UN Environment, and a 2021 paper published by the U.K.-based Institute of Development Studies found that 200 million girls in the world’s lower-income countries are at heightened risk.
Yet there are vivid stories that show why one of the world’s most powerful solutions to the climate crisis lies in educating these very girls. Mercy Wanjiku Kamonjo has one such story. Raised and educated in Kenya, where the World Bank estimates the enrollment rate for girls in secondary school is 40 percent, Kamonjo, 27, is the founder of the Kuza Generation Initiative, which helps women-led farms build climate resilience. She is a climate activist, and a Girl Rising Future Rising Fellow. Girl Rising, which I head, is a New York-based nonprofit organization that leads education programs around the world, creating a positive ripple effect from girls’ education that can be felt in the fight against climate change.
Growing up on her mother’s farm in Kenya, Kamonjo didn’t have access to climate-change data, but she witnessed the changing weather patterns, the diminishing rains, and the reduced yields of their potatoes, corn, beans, and other crops. Now as an environmental studies major at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kamonjo not only has a science-based understanding of the global risk of climate change, she has the skills and knowledge to initiate local, sustainable agriculture solutions among entire communities of farmers.
Amid a worsening food and water crisis caused by three years of drought in Kenya’s huge arid region, Kamonjo is helping dozens of women-led farms to adopt stacked, multistory farming techniques using reclaimed materials — this helps conserve water and increase yields by as much as 400 percent.
Kamonjo’s training of about 100 farmers has helped local communities to mitigate climate shocks and improve livelihoods. By adopting these techniques, the farmers, who are predominantly mothers, are earning higher incomes that allow them to provide their children with school supplies, including books, uniforms, and sanitary pads. These resources increase the likelihood that children will complete their education.
The Next Generation of Climate Leaders
Educating girls is the solution to climate change that is hiding in plain sight. With a quality education, girls gain the knowledge and skills to protect themselves and their families during climate or extreme weather emergencies. Educated girls are also instrumental in building more resilient communities, and schooling provides a pathway for them to build vital green skills that can drive a switch to transition sustainable energy.
These girls grow up to become leaders in their communities, businesses, and nations — and a growing body of research finds that women leaders at all levels prioritize the environment more than men.
Unfortunately, 129 million girls worldwide still lack access to education, while millions more receive subpar schooling. The global trends of conflict, displacement, pandemics, and climate change are putting even more girls at risk of losing their education.
It's time to realize that investing in girls’ education is not only a human rights issue but also a vital part of addressing climate change.
That’s why Girl Rising launched our new program, Future Rising, to bring this solution into sharp focus by supporting young leaders from around the world. Today, Kamonjo is part of a global community of Future Rising Fellows. They include Leticia Tituana Picuasi, 25, from Ecuador, who founded the nonprofit Warmi STEM to combine cutting-edge engineering solutions with traditional indigenous techniques to address water security; Hilda Flavia Nakabuye, 26, of Uganda who, as founder of the Fridays for Future movement, is leading young people in the revitalization of Lake Victoria; and Lauren Ritchie, 21, from the Bahamas is creating new climate-informed education resources for Bahamian students.
The Future Rising Fellows are from all parts of the world where climate change is impacting communities in varied ways, such as through drought, flooding, sea level change, desertification, and ocean acidification. The solutions the fellows lead address specific regional problems, but a common theme to their approach is empowering girls.
As part of Kamonjo’s initiative, she has taught hundreds of girls in elementary and secondary schools how to plant and care for native trees that help to restore soil health, capture carbon, and conserve water. Picuasi is inspiring a new generation of girls to pursue careers in STEM, and Nakabuye regularly visits schools to encourage girls to take action for climate justice by protecting local ecosystems, promoting sustainable agriculture, and staging protests against pollutive projects, like the East African Crude Oil Pipeline.
As we observe Earth Day this weekend, it’s time to recognize that getting girls into school not only helps them thrive, survive, advocate, and build resilience in themselves and their communities, but it also helps the planet.
By educating girls, we are investing in the next generation of climate leaders — leaders who will play a vital role in reversing the climate change. Making girls’ education a central part of our efforts to address climate crisis is not just a moral obligation, it is also a vital investment that will secure a better future for all.