Women Figure Centrally in Sustainable Development

  • This year awarded a total of five young women scientists: Bushra Khalid (Pakistan), Towfida Siddiqua (Bangladesh), Mst Marzina Begum (Bangladesh), Erlyn Rachell Macarayan (Philippines), and Chen Chia-shin (Taiwan).
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Gro Brundtland Week of Women in Sustainable Development, an annual event held by National Cheng Kung University (NCKU), recently wrapped up its first year in Taipei on February 26. Over a total of six days, five women scientists from developing countries attended a series of forums which spanned the length of Taiwan—from Tainan and Hualien in the south and center to the northern city of Taipei. Talks attracted both seasoned specialists and high school students and focused on sustainability and women’s special place in that new and increasingly relevant field. The organizers hope that through the event more ties can be made between Taiwan and developing countries for the furtherance of woman in science and society.

Women doctorate scientists under the age of 40 from developing countries (or Taiwan) and engaged in the fields of public health or sustainable development are eligible for the award. This year awarded a total of five young women scientists: Bushra Khalid (Pakistan), Towfida Siddiqua (Bangladesh), Mst Marzina Begum (Bangladesh), Erlyn Rachell Macarayan (Philippines), and Chen Chia-shin (Taiwan).

As the name suggests, the week is one of many initiatives set off by the “Godmother of Sustainable Development” Gro Harlem Brundtland. As the first female prime minister of Norway and one of the seminal leaders in sustainable ideas, Brundtland herself has played no small part in forcing a reassessment of the status of women in modern society, whether it be in government, science, or the world of economic and social development. When she won the inaugural Tang Prize in Sustainable Development in 2014 for her “innovation, leadership and implementation of sustainable development,” she assigned part of her award to NCKU to set up a project for women scientists. The project later became the Gro Brundtland Week of Women in Sustainable Development and was purposed with fostering young talented women working in the fields of sustainability and health.

This year marks the first instance of the event, which will be held each year from 2016 to 2018. On February 21 NCKU held the opening ceremonies in Tainan; following which 5 forums were held in Hualien’s National Dong Hwa University and the Academia Sinica in Taipei. The final presentations and closing ceremony were held February 26 at the Tang Prize Foundation offices in Taipei. Attendees to the closing included NCKU President Jenny Su, Academia Sinica Vice President Wang Yu, Tang Prize Foundation CEO Jenn-Chuan Chern, Academia Sinica Research Fellow Long Shi-jun, Yang Ming University Jian Li-ying, and Professor at Hawaii’s East-West Center Nancy Lewis.

As women from developing regions, many of these scientists shared the same issues and challenges with respect to climate change. Thus, for their final presentation, each of the five scientists contributed her own expertise to a proposal for future research. Noting that women are often relegated to household work and water gathering, Marzina showed how deleterious health effects from climate change, such as arsenic-tainted water sources, can be especially dangerous to women. Chen, a specialist in stakeholder engagement, suggested that education is one important channel to mitigate these effects; another is gathering and making the data on climate and health available to the people most affected by climate change, that is, women and children. For that is the main thrust of their argument—as Macarayan stressed in the final overview of their proposal, “Climate change affects everyone, but not equally.” Thus it is up to scientists and society to work together to protect the vulnerable.

NCKU President Su congratulated the five recipients of the Gro Brundtland Week of Women in Sustainable Development award for their investment in the field and outstanding academic performance. She noted in her address that of the nearly 600 people who attended the weeklong event, many were young women. Su also stressed the importance of these topics, such as public health and epidemiology, for the next generation.

Wang noted in her words to the winners that climate change is a global challenge that must be quickly battled with appropriate strategies within the next ten years, and so she is happy to see that young people are already taking the initiative by joining events like this. Through the help of the Tang Prize, NCKU, and the vision of people like Brundtland, the week has given a fresh dose of hope.

Science in developing countries is dampened by lack of resources, both physical and academic, and not least by the limitations faced by women eager to enter the world of higher education. This event attempts to bring more people from these countries in discussion with the developed world, to promote both mutual understanding and to facilitate dialogue among women scholars.