Being passionate about short-lived climate pollutants and changing lives of Nigerian women and girls

Interview with Bahijjahtu Abubakar

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Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, thanks Bahijjahtu Abubakar for her service as CCAC Co-Chair.

Ms. Abubakar is leaving her position as co-chair of the CCAC in September after a successful two years in the position, where she saw the CCAC grow from seven partners to more than 90. She will remain active with the CCAC on behalf of her country, Nigeria, but she will also become involved more deeply in work with women’s organizations in her country. She sat down with the CCAC Secretariat for a few questions before departing.

You are passionate about this issue of short-lived climate pollutants. Why? What led you to become so involved in the issue and in CCAC?

I’m a very lucky Nigerian woman. I came from Muslim Northern Nigeria and was among the first women allowed to go to school there. I started as a mechanical engineer and then got a master’s degree in environmental engineering. I was probably the first female mechanical engineer in the North.

My concern over time has shifted more and more from environmental impact to climate change issues. Climate change affects women a lot more than [it affects] men. When you look at the loss of vegetation that climate change brings, the forced migration and loss of livelihoods, it affects women more. The loss of farmland causes conflict, and in areas of climate-induced conflicts, women, children and families are most affected. An example is in Borno state [Nigeria], where the drying of Lake Chad has led to a loss in livelihoods in sectors such as fishing, boat maintenance, fisheries distributors and sales. Many jobs have disappeared, leading to abject poverty in the region dependent on the lake.

Furthermore, desert encroaches into Borno and Yobe States as much as six kilometers per year because of climate change. The countryside loses vegetation rapidly, houses are demolished as the desert advances. Women and their families move to other areas, but they are treated like intruders [and so they are not secure]. I am an environmentalist, but I am also a social activist. If we want any society to develop, preservation of women is the root. That’s why I’m very passionate about the environment and the CCAC.

What is it about the CCAC that works so well?

It’s voluntary. I went to a catholic school (although I’m a Muslim), and I learned that you don’t have to go to confession.  Yet you go and confess your sins because you want to. That’s the spirit of the CCAC: You join and actively participate because you know it's the right thing to do. Some countries bring the funds, but then they sit back and let others become involved as partners. From the very beginning, we tried to make sure it was as informal as possible. We wanted to make sure there was no series of accreditations that people had to go through that put up a wall even before they get in. The letter each partner writes to join makes it very clear that they are taking voluntary action to reduce short-lived climate pollutants. And because they know it’s not binding, we see joint action at its best. If you come into a room and see that everyone is nice, not demanding, you act differently. No one is fighting anyone else here. So those that come with their defenses up relax. We break into groups, we discuss initiatives over lunch and dinner. People stand up for each other. And if you have an opinion that is very strong, instead of shouting someone down in the meeting, you discuss it over coffee break or lunch. We have a human face, not a tailor-made script.

But above all, we show action.

We are a coalition about hope, hope that there is still hope in the climate talks. We feel a sense of responsibility. We have the moral obligation to keep hope alive."

What has it meant to you to lead the CCAC?

For me, it made me more liberal. I am a rigid advocate of climate change. I like to apply the rules. However, as co-chair you can’t always do that. And my former fellow co-chair, Jonathan Pershing of the US, calmed me really quick. So from the beginning, our biggest objective as co-chairs, along with Kaveh Zahedi, who was coordinating the CCAC for UNEP, was to nurture and make everyone feel welcome.  This is a coalition, it’s a family and we get things done. Partners trust us with their funds. There is process, but the process doesn’t hinder performance. Because of the spirit of the coalition, there is no strong divide among the partners.  In other forums people come with preconceived positions. Here, everybody wants to give, not take.

The coalition is like a mother. Every child is loved. In other places there are rules, here we have some rules too, but we don’t have to prove anything to anyone. We’re not fighting for anything. We are here to learn from each other.

And in the past year, with three women working together [Abubakar, co-chair Annika Markovic of Sweden and Helena Molin Valdes, Head of the CCAC Secretariat], we really went into cruise control and got massive projects rolling. We are now able to say with full confidence that it's a Coalition of the Working, and everyone who needs to take notice has not only noticed but acknowledged.

Nigeria has benefited immensely from the coalition. We have been able to get the skills to help ourselves. Nigeria set a target to provide 20 million clean cookstoves by 2020, and we’re domesticating the initiatives of the CCAC . We are awaiting presidential approval for a five-year kerosene phase-out in all schools in Nigeria. We got this idea from the CCAC. Our president sent out a letter last week to his colleagues throughout the ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] region asking them to sign a statement with the CCAC to set targets for ECOWAS countries for cookstoves and kerosene lanterns. If the other presidents agree, CCAC will be the secretariat for the intervention. So then I can leave as co-chair knowing I have brought reform to West Africa too.

I’ve never done this [co-chaired an organization] on an international level. I have been honored to have had the confidence of my colleagues. Today I feel like a grandmother, because I see a lot of African countries here now [as partners in the CCAC]. Togo, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, Liberia, Benin, Ethiopia. Ghana was a founder. I like the mentorship. It’s a coalition that listens to each other.

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The RUWES Local Government Partnership was founded by Ms. Abubakar. Photo: courtesy of Nigerian Ministry of Environment.

What will you be doing next?

Now that's the exciting part! I founded the RUWES (Rural Women Energy Security) Initiative in Nigeria to bring change, and I be spending more time with them. As you may be aware, WHO estimates that cooking with firewood kills over 100,000 women in Nigeria every year. This is a national emergency, and RUWES will step forward to lead the call to action. I promised when I launched RUWES  to lead my sisters nationwide in launching a massive awareness campaign on the hazards of cooking with firewood. Women should not be dying from cooking. This is a call to action for Nigerian women. We must save our mothers, sisters, daughters and wives from preventable illnesses and embrace clean energy for cooking, lighting and heating. RUWES is also involved in the kerosene lantern exchange program as well as the chain-training scheme, where one trained woman (an assembler of solar lanterns and cookstoves) must train ten women to be eligible for a 2nd-tier business starter kit.

Furthermore, we must further expose our women to the business of saving lives, and we need to use microfinance as a powerful tool for poverty alleviation and socioeconomic empowerment. Because RUWES works with microfinance banks, the banks are beginning to recognize our rural women as entrepreneurs, and we are seeing increased loans and credits approved for women through the RUWES project.

It is emotionally challenging to work with women in the northeastern part of Nigeria because of the psychological trauma of the insurgency, as most of them are either widows or orphans with very bad cases of abuse.

Although we recognize they are fragile, we must give them hope to carry on. RUWES steps in to help hold their hands through their stay in the refugee camps and help them acquire new skills. In partnership with the state government we help them form cooperatives to start small businesses when they leave the camps.

So I have my hands full, and I know I can't give my best anywhere else because of this new development at home. It’s hard work, it's emotionally challenging, but it's also greatly rewarding.

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