On August 09, South Africa marks Women’s Day to pay tribute to the more than 20,000 women who marched to the Union Buildings 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. This year, the nation celebrates Women’s Month under the theme, “Generation Equality”: Realizing Women’s Rights for an Equal Future”. Empowering women and girls is a common feature in the ongoing work of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Both in South Africa and globally, UNDP efforts have been towards demonstrating commitment to the United Nations (UN) Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most visionary agenda for women’s rights and empowerment everywhere. South Africa is a co-leader of the Generation Equality Forum’s Action Coalition on Economic Justice and Rights, and as such, South Africa is showing strong commitment to contribute to accelerating global efforts to achieve gender equality by 2030, especially advocating for decent work for women and gender-responsive and financially inclusive economies.


This year we have not only been entering #GenerationEquality, but also #GenerationRestoration: the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration launched on World Environment Day in June 2021. In the same way as gender equality and women’s empowerment is essential to a sustainable world, so is a healthy planet. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. It can help to end poverty, combat climate change and prevent a mass extinction. Restoring our planet will only succeed if everyone plays a part, and in this work, women, youth and vulnerable groups have a special role. This piece elaborates the special role of female-identifying youth in the environment sector, by highlighting three young professionals in South Africa that UNDP has had the privilege to interview and share their views on the future of work in the green economy.


Gender, Youth and Climate Change

Gender equality, youth unemployment and climate change are all critical development challenges in South Africa. Research predicts that southern Africa is one of the regions hit the hardest by climate change, and in fact South Africa is already experiencing changes that are affecting agricultural and water systems, hence food insecurity, causing environmental degradation and air pollution. All these affect the quality of health, long-term prosperity and security. The issues of gender, age, socio-economic status and climate change are undeniably intersectional.


Tackling these challenges in tandem, namely through a just transition to an environmentally sustainable society, necessitates a nuanced approach. Climate change has a greater impact on the world’s poorest, vulnerable and most reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods - a burden which in many countries falls on women. Women’s unequal participation in decision-making processes and labour markets also prevent women from fully contributing to climate-related planning, policy-making and implementation. Yet, women play a critical role in responding to climate change at household, community, local as well as at the national and international political level.


In South Africa, UNDP works with the government and other partners on a range of initiatives aimed at empowering women and youth. Some examples are a recent collaboration with the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) aimed to intensify efforts to reduce youth unemployment; implementation of a digital Climate, Robotics and STEM project for high-school learners aimed at addressing issues related to climate-related SDGs; 24 young wind energy technicians (40% women) trained through the cooperation with the South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre (SARETEC); and 33 youth ambassadors trained in good community governance practices around Kruger National Park in cooperation with South African National Parks. Another example is the mobilisation of resources from the UNDP Climate Promise for a South Africa based initiative aimed at supporting gender mainstreaming in climate action as a tool for enhanced climate action ambition in relation to ensuring South Africa’s updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement.


The SANBI and UNDP Mainstreaming Biodiversity project

Another ongoing example of this commitment is the support to municipalities in developing sustainable and green employment for the nation’s youth in the Mainstreaming Biodiversity into Land-use Regulation and Management at the Municipal Scale project. Simply known as the “Biodiversity and Land Use” (BLU) project, the project is managed by UNDP with funding mobilised from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and is implemented by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and its partners. The BLU project is being implemented in four district municipalities in global biodiversity hotspots and national biodiversity priority areas with very high rates of habitat degradation and conversion, high levels of poverty, and other pressing needs for action: Amathole (Eastern Cape), uMgungundlovu (Kwa-Zulu Natal), and Ehlanzeni (Mpumalanga) District Municipalities are located in the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany hotspot; and the Cape Winelands District (Western Cape) Municipality is located between Succulent Karoo and the Cape Floristic Region hotspots. The primary objective is to mitigate multiple threats to biodiversity by working with authorities and landowners to regulate land use and to manage priority biodiversity at the municipal scale. To date, the project has leveraged R325 million for biodiversity activities and contributed to more than 800 jobs.


Another way in which UNDP and SANBI have positively impacted both youth employment and biodiversity conservation efforts is through the work with the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEA&DP) in the Western Cape and its Environmental Law Enforcement (ELE) Directorate. Through the BLU project, three interns were trained, who now work as Environmental Officers (EOs) tasked with combating environmental crime that causes threats to biodiversity. This is often done through compliance monitoring and enforcement such as site investigations and inspections, legal assistance, and the establishment and monitoring of rehabilitation programs for alleged offenders.


UNDP and its partners are keen to share the joys of the initiative, particularly from the perspective of those who experience it first-hand, namely the wonderful young working as EOs. Below will feature the experiences of the three officers; Leigh Kelly, Tashreeqah Sadan and Nokulunga Goqo.


QUESTION 1: What is your role in the Environmental Crime Unit/ what do you focus on in your work?

Leigh Kelly [26, Mamre, Cape Town, Western Cape]

“I am an Environmental Officer (EO), employed within the DEA&DP, Directorate: ELE, Region 2. Our main function is to investigate matters relating to environmental crimes, in both a reactive and proactive manner, specifically within the Cape Winelands District. We focus primarily on combating the numerous and diverse threats to indigenous vegetation, endangered and critically endangered vegetation through compliance monitoring and enforcement.”


Tashreeqah Sadan [23, Pelican Heights, Cape Town, Western Cape]

 “I am an EO. My main function is to combat environmental crime in both a reactive and proactive manner within the Cape Winelands District Municipality. Focusing specifically on combating the numerous and diverse threats to indigenous vegetation, endangered and critically endangered vegetation within the Cape Winelands District Municipality through compliance monitoring and enforcement. I focus primarily on the administrative enforcement process of NEMA and the SEMA’s[1], i.e. conducting site inspections, drafting pre-notices and notices (Pre-Directive, Pre-Compliance Notice, Compliance & Directive), reviewing representation from Environmental Assessment Practitioners, and attorneys etc.  Representation consists of but is not limited to Rehabilitation Plans.”

Nokulunga Goqo [25, Cape Town, Western Cape]

I work as an EO for the DEA&DP Directorate: ELE. My main role is to assist Environmental Management Inspectors in combating the numerous and diverse threats to indigenous vegetation, endangered and critically endangered vegetation within the Cape Winelands District Municipality through compliance monitoring and enforcement.


QUESTION 2: What made you choose to become an environmental officer, and what is the best thing about your job?

Leigh Kelly “Nature has always been my passion, and I’ve always known that I would want to work within the environmental sector in some way or form. It sounds cliché, but being an EO chose me. Initially I joined the ELE team as a graduate intern employed specifically for the BLU project in collaboration with SANBI. We were granted the opportunity to apply for the EO posts, which I eagerly lunged at, as it was an opportunity to grow within my career. The best thing about my job is being able to partake in site investigations and being in the field, gaining invaluable experience and knowledge, not to mention being able to explore our amazing Cape Winelands landscape whilst doing my job.“

Tashreeqah Sadan “I fell into this career field accidentally. I received a bursary from Cape Peninsula University of Technology which allowed me to study any course offered at the University and Nature Conservation intrigued me. Growing up I had a natural inquisition towards the natural world. I was intrigued by the natural sciences. BBC earth and National Geographic was and still is my favourite tv channels. What I love most about my job is exploring my country and seeing the different and unique biodiversity South Africa has to offer.”

Nokulunga Goqo “Growing up in an industrial development zone of Richards Bay meant I get the first-hand experience on the effects of environmental degradation. As I grew up, I began to realize that the air quality of my hometown was deteriorating at a high rate. As thousands of hectares of Indigenous vegetation got transformed into plantations of exotic species, Rivers, dams, and wetlands that were of important aesthetic value to myself and the community began to dry up. It is then that I decided I wanted to be an EO, so I can actively contribute to aid sustainable development and raise environmental consciousness of the developers as well as the citizens of South Africa. The best part of my job is raising environmental awareness and seeing alleged offenders committing themselves to rehabilitate degraded areas.

All of the profiled EOs expressed optimism regarding the potential for growth in the environmental sector. Each is confident that new jobs would arise within the booming sector. However, they did note that these new jobs would demand specialised skill sets and therefore may necessitate further education. UNDP is mindful of this, hence why much of our work is not only focused upon job creation but also aims to empower the youth through further education and training. Advice from peers is invaluable, and the advice given by current environmental officers to prospective environmentalists was certainly insightful too. Perseverance, passion, volunteering experience, having like-minded and shared interest communities (perhaps through university but otherwise too) and determination were all qualities that were encouraged by the environmental officers who kindly shared their experiences of the BLU project.


“I personally think the environmental sector has lots of potential in order to grow. As there’s always more work to be done and especially with the environment under extreme pressure. The passion and dedication is a large contributing factor for all the goals achieved within this field as resources alone does not make a difference.” - Tashreeqah Sadan


“My advice to young aspiring environmentalists is, in order to succeed within this field, you need to have a real passion for the environment and love what you do. It is not an easy sector and the efforts often feel futile when witnessing the state of our environment. It is ultimately about persevering and knowing that changing people’s perspectives and contributing towards awareness even a little at a time makes a difference and that within itself is rewarding. Keep pushing towards your dream, it will always be worth it.” - Leigh Kelly


Given the ongoing pandemic and the challenges that preceded it, namely unemployment and the global climate crisis, being able to celebrate beacons of positivity is essential. The BLU project and its successes, therefore, especially being able to hear from the EOs directly is truly inspiring and invigorating. UNDP is committed to continuing to support the government and other actors in this area so that many more generations of Women and Youth may share their experiences and continue to inspire their peers.


Article written by Char Deslandes & Tove Nordberg, UNDP

Icon of SDG 05 Icon of SDG 07 Icon of SDG 10 Icon of SDG 12 Icon of SDG 13 Icon of SDG 15

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP South Africa 
Go to UNDP Global