Two inspiring voices

Published : Apr 08, 2005 00:00 IST

Rigoberta Menchu. - RODRIGO ABD/AP

Rigoberta Menchu. - RODRIGO ABD/AP

THE mood was palpably expectant as the participants of the 49th session of the Commission on the Status of Women came to hear two Nobel laureates, Wangari Muta Mathai of Kenya and Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala, at a session organised by the U.N. Environment Programme on Women, Peace and Environment. As they entered the room, the gathering rose as one to give them a standing ovation.

Both Mathai and Menchu were matter-of-fact and said they were "just doing what had to be done". For Mathai, that was planting trees. A botanist, she started the Greenbelt Movement in 1977. She encouraged women to plant trees and empower themselves. She was the first woman to earn a doctorate in West Africa. In 2002, she was elected to Parliament and was made Assistant Minister of Environment, a position she continues to hold. In 2004, she won the Nobel Prize for Peace for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

For Menchu, what had to be done was to defend the rights of the indigenous people. When the military-led government and the wealthy plantation owners started taking Indian-occupied land by force, Menchu's father, Vincente, became a leader in the peasant movement opposing this action. He began making petitions and then organising a series of protests to secure the lands for the indigenous people who had been living on them. He was arrested and imprisoned many times for his activities. Menchu's mother and brother were killed by the army, and her father was burned alive. She fled to Mexico but continued to fight for her people despite threats to her life. "Indigenous peoples have rights - to land and to participate (in political life)," she said. Menchu, who never had formal education, has written two books and was awarded an honorary doctorate. In 1992, she won the Nobel Prize for Peace "in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples".

Mathai, who was Secretary-General of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, reminisced about the First Conference for the Advancement of Women organised in Mexico in 1975. "Stop saying nothing is happening. Much has happened. Congratulate ourselves!" she said to thunderous applause. Mathai cited Mexico's focus on rural women's concerns - food, water, fuel and income. Today, the world over, water is still of great concern, with the threat of drought and climate change. She warned that patenting of seeds threatens food security. People are dying, not because there is no food but because they are too poor to buy food.

Menchu said that in Nairobi, in 1985, women put indigenous people's rights on the U.N.'s agenda. If women are suffering, the indigenous peoples are even worse off, for they are in a minority. "Winning the Nobel is not easy. People expect a lot... . Many people want us to speak. I think the Nobel is a punishment. But a nice punishment because we can help people who every day dream many dreams that can never come true. I'm happy to be here with my sister Mathai. If one can make one thing, can you imagine what two of us can make?" she said.

Mathai said the environment had not been receiving much emphasis lately. However, the good news was the U.N. has started the Decade of Education for the Environment. Mathai said women must celebrate their achievements, including her Nobel, but must also fight against poverty by championing debt relief and open market, and tackle climate change and deforestation. "It is us who will eventually have to convince our governments that women need to be given equal space, to be given an opportunity to exploit their potential, and that it is not a gift for women to participate in decision-making - it is a right," Mathai said to loud applause.

Menchu said women should be "a beacon of hope" to change systems promoting racism, discrimination, exclusion and the lack of economic opportunity. "We women have to give the example of being inclusive, of fighting exclusion, of fighting racism," she said. "That is why I'm here."

The parting words of the two women leaders were: Invest more in peace so we can manage resources sustainably and share these resources equitably. We cannot have peace without the three pillars - environment, peace and democracy, said Mathai. To the women, Menchu said: "I wish you self-esteem. You can define your life and your work. If you are a model for all, no need for a Nobel. Let us go ahead. Everything has been said about the rights of women. We have statements, investigations, resolutions. We now need action!"

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