Changing The Face Of Politics Podcast

Episode 13: Dima Moussa interviews Wanjira Mathai

In this episode, Dima Moussa, member of the Syrian political opposition, interviews Wanjira Mathai, Vice President and Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute about her environmental activism and views on women’s leadership in climate action.






Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this episode, Dima Moussa, member of the Syrian political opposition, interviews Wanjira Mathai, Vice President and Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute about her environmental activism and views on women’s leadership in climate action. 

Dima Moussa: Hi everyone and welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Dima Moussa, and I am a member of the Syrian political opposition and a founding member of the Syrian Women's Political Movement. My guest today is Wanjira Mathai. Wanjira is a Kenyan environmentalist and activist. She is the Vice President and Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute. Thank you for being here with me today, Wanjira. I am really looking forward to this conversation. 

Wanjira Mathai: Thank you, Dima. Lovely to be with you. 

Dima Moussa: As you know, Wanjira, last year the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference and Platform for Action was celebrated. What do you think has changed for women who are in leadership and decision-making positions working in public affairs over the last 25 years, and what has stayed the same? 

Wanjira Mathai: Well Dima, you know, it's a big question. So much has changed and so much has stayed the same. And sometimes there's that adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I think overall, I attempt to take the optimistic opinion that a lot has changed. There’s a lot more space for women to engage. I look around the world and I see a lot more women in leadership, political leadership, than I did before. Women thriving and doing really well. And so this is not tokenism. This is really women earning their place in leadership. We see legislation changing - my own country, Kenya, has now enshrined in the constitution a two-third agenda rule. It is in there and we are struggling to make sure that it is upheld, but that's progress. So I think that overall quite a bit has changed. I'm also inspired by the young leaders, young women who are going into political leadership, because this is something that they feel compelled to do, they feel prepared to do, which was one of the things that I witnessed, especially at the grassroots level, a lot of times we are our own biggest enemy, not putting ourselves forward for leadership, not considering ourselves as potential leaders. I think that's great. The other thing that I think has changed and, but we could do a lot better, I don't think we have made as much progress with our men counterparts, our male counterparts voting and putting women in places of leadership. I think it's happening more and more, but we could do much better preparing our sons and our fathers and others to actually put women forward for leadership, especially in the global South. I think that especially in political parties and not necessarily offer them the positions, but that they would be willing to vote for them. Because we're constantly talking about women being given positions of power or earning positions of power and assuming that they will be put in there by other women, but they will also be put in there by men. And so we have to get better at getting our men prepared for women's leadership.

Dima Moussa: I'm glad actually, you mentioned the thing about the Kenyan constitution. You know, being part of the constitutional committee for the Syria political process, we always use that as one of the great examples of how this can be actually put in the constitution. But I see we will also face problems with trying to enforce it or make it really happen. And we always hear about this, you know, the importance of women's involvement in politics and many, including myself, advocate for that, but we rarely hear about the importance of involvement of women and girls in other areas of public affairs, like the one you're involved in as an environmental activist. Why is it important to have more women and girls engaged in activism and what has worked to encourage more women to get involved from your own experience? 

Wanjira Mathai: I think there's a couple of things why it's really important. I think the first is that women are disproportionately affected by a lot of issues across the board. I work in the environmental sector and the environmental sector is broad. It captures food, it captures a lot of the water sector, the environmental sector with respect to forests. And a lot of the people who engage with these ecosystem services are women. And so women feel the pressure, women feel the pinch when there's - when these resources are restricted. And so I think it's critically important for us to be led locally by those who understand. And that they're not only involved in one part of the system, but they're involved in designing solutions, they’re involved in marketing some of these solutions, they’re involved in resolving in the feedback loops and in those leadership positions where decisions are being made, because they understand they're most disproportionately affected. I think that's one. The other is that I think women in many parts of the world are, in many ways, I would say, prepared for positions or situations of leadership like this. So often we’ve only assumed men are prepared for these positions of leadership, but women are also prepared through their lives, through their lives experiences and certainly through the preparation of the education. We're seeing more and more girls getting educated, getting prepared for positions across the board. So that's another one. Historically, in my society at least, women were not always prioritized in education - it was the boy child that was educated. We've made a lot of progress educating the girl child. And so she's ready, she's ready for leadership. And I think that's another really important reason. And one of the things that I think is really important is role models. When you see others like you or others who look like you and you can feel, ‘Oh, I could be in that position.’ I was extremely inspired by my own mother's activism. By the fact that I witnessed how she thought through issues, how she was mobilized by her own conscience to care, how she spoke through these issues and understood that sometimes, she would tell me, sometimes good ideas come to one person at a time. So when you have the idea, don't assume someone else has it. If you have a good idea, act on it, because you're probably the only one who has it. And if you don't act on it, someone else will act on it. And then you will say, Dima, you'll say, ‘Oh, that I have thought about that before.’ Well, you did nothing about it, someone else did. So I think that role models are a really important part, and especially for young women, young girls, to see others in it. And I think we've seen more of that, and I'm not surprised we're seeing more and more women going into activism, going into politics, going into all different sectors because they know it's possible. They've seen it.

Dima Moussa: Yeah. And that's a great piece of advice. And I know I've read that your mother has been a critical figure in your life and your activism. And you actually kind of answered my following question, which is why you - what motivated to get involved. But you know again, you know, being a woman who's working in the public sphere, we always face challenges. And I'm kind of curious to know what were some of the challenges that you faced and how have you overcome them?

Wanjira Mathai: Oh yeah, there's been a lot of challenges. I would say some of the challenges have included - actually very intergenerational challenges. Intergenerational what would be considered conflicts. But in my mind, I've always thought these are intergenerational misunderstandings because our generation or the generation that we often receiving, taking over from in leadership positions could have a very patronizing approach to leadership and think you're just too young to be doing what you're doing. And that, that I think by far has been the most challenging thin. To be challenged because of your experience or your youth and thinking, and thankfully I'm not young, but when you're dealing with people who are much older than you, you are young and you'll always be younger than them. And they believe that you do not have the body of knowledge and experience that is needed. But there's so much evolution in organizations, evolution in issues. And to be current and to be in touch with what's going on around the world, you need to shift. Sometimes that intergenerational transfer of leadership is critical because then it brings the organization to the current situation. But that has been a very difficult one. But what I've done, and you asked me what I've done, is that because I understand, I've always sought to stay in this space to never feel like, ‘well, I'm not welcome, so let me exit.’ I've never felt the need to exit. I've always felt the need to finish, to fight the good fight, finish the race, because that's part of it. That I am in that space because I'm supposed to be in that space. And whatever comes with it is part of what I'm supposed to deal with. That prepares me for the next step. And I maintain that mindset. And so I'm forced to say with, this is what I have, what am I going to do about it? So I never feel the need to exit when that, when that pressure comes.

Dima Moussa: It's funny how a lot of these things are cross-cutting, because this is something we definitely struggle with. When I hear your response, I realize how much of this is cross cultural, because we deal with the same thing about, you know, some of the experienced and older generations, you know, kind of being hesitant to give up this space. But you know, this is, the insisting on staying in this space is very important. And being a woman who works in the public sphere, you know, well, it might differ from one culture to another, there are always these pluses and minuses to that. But personally, a lot of times it can have an effect on you and on your family. From your own experiences, what have been some of the pluses and minuses of being involved in the public life and being such a prominent activist.

Wanjira Mathai: You're right. There's been pluses and minuses. It is demanding to, for people to feel like whenever there's an issue, what are you doing about it? Right? Because they know that you care about that issue, you speak out about that issue. You know, there is trees being cut down in this and that place and, and sort of that's put at your doorstep. So sometimes that must be very difficult, not only for me, and I would probably not even say I faced much of that burden, but it is a real burden for people who are in the forefront, who are in leadership, because the expectation is you can do more and more of it. But there are significant benefits, I've always believed, and this is another thing that I learned so early from my mother, that the, the joy of service. I find when I find something that I really care about, like at the moment, I'm really passionate about the dignity of youth, the dignity of small scale farmers and beginning to do work as vice-president and regional director at the World Resources Institute, that impacts on their lives, that creates opportunities for them. I find that when I'm in that space, I get such, such a high - it's such a joy to work in that space. So, and that sort of gift doesn't come unless you're in spaces like that. So I really feel like that's a huge plus, to feel like you're being of service, to feel like you're working where you're supposed to be, to really sometimes wake up and feel how lucky am I, that this is actually my job. So it is a good feeling to know that you found somewhat the purpose that you want.

Dima Moussa: That's great. And you know we always - it takes me back to the point of, you know, providing this, this idea of providing, serving your community and your society and being able to offer something. And I don't know how, you know, the cultural makeup, if it's similar to the context in which I work, where we're always being, you know, asked ‘why do you, why do you think you, you know, women need to be here?’ And our answer is always when it comes to politics, at least, which is, you know, the field that I'm in, is that men and women have different perspectives on policies and politics, and that's necessary, you know, because they represent, this is 50% of society. And I'm kind of curious to know from your own experience in the field that you are involved in when it comes to activism, but specifically also to environmental issues, what are the differences in the way that women and men lead and engage with others with regards to this kind of work and how does it affect the outcome? You know here, we're talking about how do we make the case for the importance of women's involvement, in addition to what you had said earlier about being affected, but, you know, I'm curious about also the outcomes of this.

Wanjira Mathai: One of the things that I find is that young people, especially, so this both men and women, tend to work quite collaboratively. They find sort of the power in working in collaboration with each other, which you don't quite see all the time where and I think women have more of that tendency to want to consult, to be consultative and to be collaborative. And, and I think with that sort of a mindset often you go far, you avoid a lot of pitfalls because no one has the monopoly of wisdom. You have to be in consultation with others and constantly take people with you. And I think that true leadership is not being in the front physically, true leadership is carrying people with you and making sure that whatever you're doing, you're doing in consultation and that it is resulting in the best possible outcome. So I find that particular quality quite important.

Dima Moussa: And how can we encourage more, you know, and, you know, I do want to, I don't want to shift too much away from the women and girls, but also, you know, the youth, because I think that's generally also tends to be a marginalized group in terms of working in politics or activism or in leadership positions. So what is it that we can do collectively that you, maybe you can advise whether the community leaders or even policymakers in Kenya to make sure that more women, more girls and more youth are involved in public affairs and the public sphere?

Wanjira Mathai: You know what's interesting is a lot of them are finding their way into activism. And I have always thought activism in all forms, whether they are university and they're active in the university spaces in the different clubs, in different ways. They come out of that and there's this urge to continue. And somehow there's not enough platforms that allow young people to continue their activism. And sometimes I feel like that activism is a precursor to, to public life, to going into some sort of public service. And if there is no mentorship or nurturing that sort of dissipates. So I think there's, there's a real opportunity for, for nurturing and mentoring of young people so that they continue and find their places in beyond their activism, whether it's environmental activism, climate activism at the moment, really impressive to see so many young people interested and engaged in climate activism, but as they get older and they start to work and perhaps even go into different spaces, how do they continue that engagement? Often it fizzles away, if they don't have the sort of mentorship that's possible to guide them and to help them understand that actually, it can continue. Including the fact that they can work in spaces, because sometimes you're an engineer trapped or you’re an activist trapped in an engineer's body. You really want to do your climate activism, but you know, you're working as an engineer. But how can you be in a space where you find work and you find you're living in the place where you feel you want to be, that is in activism in, and then it will lead you to those places. So mentorship really important and creating more spaces that allow. I've always admired countries that have youth wings, the youth wing of political parties. I've always wondered why isn’t that necessary? It's so important in nurturing those, that those leaders and that they continue to remain in that space, that as soon as they exit that space, we often lose them, but they need to stay in that space. But that takes nurturing.

Dima Moussa: That absolutely is true. And, you know, I like this idea of the mentorship, because I think it goes hand in hand with, with the previous idea that you talked about, which is about the older generations, not handing things over. And I'm wondering, have you been involved in any sort of mentorship initiatives, or is this something that you have worked on or have it within your organization and what, you know, what has been your experience with that?

Wanjira Mathai: Well, it's a great question. Dima. This is something that the Mwangi Mathai Foundation is really keen about, you know, I'm one of the founding members of the Foundation. And one of the things we really wanted to do was to activate youth engagement, civic engagement, engagement in all spheres, wherever they are, that they would speak up and stand up for what they believe. And that was, you know, and we shared stories about young lawyers who were part of a movement, but they were lawyers, they were, not necessarily doesn't mean you have to be an active member of parliament to be politically engaged. Being civically and politically engaged means caring about how you're governed, that you care enough to support, to participate, to show up when you're needed and to show your support for movements, including running for office, if that's something that works for you. But that it’s so important, and what the foundation is trying is that we do this from an early stage, trying to get support to build a children's program that works on values and character traits and begins to unpack what it means to have courage, what it means to have compassion, what it means to be committed to service, what it means to be committed to conservation and have a green-minded approach to everything. And so those beginnings and coding it into curriculum or working with people who are doing that, and we are trying to develop a program that coaches - that is anchored in an emotional intelligence framework from an organization called Six Seconds that actually builds emotional intelligence around these character traits, believing in the theory that if we start early, these will become part and parcel of who these young people are and eventually they will care for things. Their eyes will be open by the time they go to high school, by the time they go into university. And so we've created platforms, which I would call essentially mentoring platforms, platforms for, for young people to engage children through our education program. And also the youth cafe, which is a platform that just triggers conversations about issues that young people care about. So, yeah, we have a few of those, but we could do much, much more.

Dima Moussa: It seems that in all of the conversations, when we talk about being involved in whether it's politics or activism, we always go back to the same point, the importance of starting early you know, the importance of education. Have there been policies, have you advocated which sounds like you have in terms of adding this into curricula in schools early on, and where are you, what have you achieved in that sense?

Wanjira Mathai: You know, we are still in the early stages of this. And there are so many people who've been working on ensuring, for example, during the last constitutional amendment conference that brought in so many new progressive policies into our constitution, we haven't - what we're trying to do at the moment is to embed it within an extracurricular operation at the moment. Because the curricular process is just so lengthy and we feel like even as that process is going on, and we are part of a consortia that is working to bring this formally in and, and, and we've heard the right signals from our governments, the minister for environment, or the minister for education is committed to actually seeing, and perhaps even now, seeing that environment is anchored quite centrally in the curriculum. But it's the content, what will that content be? And beginning to trial now, some ideas that could then become part of the mainstream. So we're keeping very close touch and informing the right people within the education ministry so that they can see some of the opportunities that exist through the work that we are doing. And I think that will bring some fruits out of that, that when Kenya is ready to actually implement, there will be enough pilots out there that they can say, ‘huh, this was a good idea that building character and building character into the curriculum is a good idea.’ We're very lucky in Kenya - we have a new curriculum, a new educational system in place. And it has a very strong sense of community engagement and it builds in there life skills. And so within that life skills curriculum, there's a lot of room for us to intervene and interact with what content the government wants to develop. So we hope that some of what we are doing will find its way there, but I think it's still early days.

Dima Moussa: Yeah. And I think this is great, you know, because some of the processes you mentioned that maybe too formal and take a long time, so might as well start in the spaces where you can actually work with this idea of extra curricula. Here, I want to move to build on the point where you talk about the constitution and, you know, I'm just trying to benefit from this opportunity to talk with you as I am involved in the constitutional process currently in Syria, what would be your recommendation for somebody who's working on drafting a new constitution for a country? You know, in terms of environmental issues, what are some of the principles that we should ensure that we have in our constitution?

Wanjira Mathai: Wow, Dima, that's a great privilege that you are doing that and what a gift your country, Syria, has to have someone like you and to have the opportunity to invest into input now. Dima one of the things things that I find extremely progressive in any constitution is to enshrine in the constitution, the right to a clean and healthy environment. So often that is assumed that it will be part of some sort of policy, but when it is a constitutional right, it gives citizens an opportunity to call out when that right has been violated. And especially these days, when the biggest issue of our time is climate change and especially the issue of emissions and air pollution, we have got to fight for a clean and healthy environment. We've got to ensure that the green spaces in our cities, which is another issue we are trying to campaign for, is to ensure that the cities that we have secure the green spaces and the trees that line them, because those will be the - those have demonstrated during this COVID period to be such places of solace and comfort that we be able to go there and enjoy the green space and what benefits that has for our mental health. So I think that would be really important if you can secure the right to a green and healthy environment, a clean and healthy environment and constitutional right for green spaces, that would be a huge victory for the people of Syria.

Dima Moussa: Thank you so much. That's really great advice. And you know I'll try to make sure that that's put on the table. And it's really hard, you know, sometimes when you're doing constitution coming out of a conflict, a lot of times, you know, you'll hear things like, this is not a priority now. But I think it is, it's always a priority. And my personal observation is that environmental issues still fail to be properly prioritized. I think this is something I've observed in most parts of the world and you as an environmental activist, do you agree with that perception? And is there something that, you know, we collectively and younger generations can be optimistic about when it comes to environmental issues and what can we do to make it more of a priority?

Wanjira Mathai: Well first of all, on the constitution, it's really important to plan for the future. So all the issues that go in there, you're not going to be doing another constitution in two weeks. So this is a really opportune moment to ensure that there's a chapter on the environment and that environment chapter captures everything. Whether you're going to do it in 10 years or 20 years, it needs to be enshrined in the constitution right away. So I think that's really important. But I think, listen, I think the younger generation understands the importance of the environment in ways that most of us don't. Many of them prioritize the environment. Many of them talk about issues of environment and air pollution and how important it is for them to have green spaces, much more than we even have appreciated. So I think they're in a much better place. And we need to do better not to let them down.

Dima Moussa: That's absolutely right. You know, and this is, again, goes back to the importance of having the youth in policymaking or influencing policy makers, so they can, you know, really translate that priority into actual legislation and actions by governments. I want to go back a little bit to the point of about the COVID-19, and you mentioned how these green spaces have been sort of a place where we go and try to disconnect from this thing that had paralyzed the world. I remember early on when the pandemic started, we saw some maps that showed the sort of like the environmental effect or the pollution over some cities compared to before and after the pandemic and it looked much better after everybody had gone on lockdown, there isn't as much airline travel or cars and all these things. So I don't know what your experience has been with how the COVID-19 crisis has affected or influenced or change your viewpoint or the way that you were?

Wanjira Mathai: Well, listen, I think a couple of really important lessons from the COVID pandemic. One is the integrity of the environment is central to our lives. I don't think any of us expected the entire world to come to a standstill because of a pandemic. I think we've always been accustomed to pandemics being geographic and located in one geography or another, but here was one that just demonstrated the interconnectedness of all things and the interconnectedness of this small planet that we live on. And also how important it is that we ensure the integrity of biodiversity. This is a zoonotic disease, which means it hopped from animals to humans. And this is because we have encroached into the habitats in whichever way, whether we are consuming them, or we are encroaching into their habitats and therefore we need to maintain the barriers that have ensured the integrity of those ecosystems and so we maintain the human-animal barrier. And that's a really important lesson and it just speaks to, again, how important it is, the environment. We cannot have an insatiable plunder of the planet and expect it to not respond in some terrible shocks like this one. We did see some reductions in emissions right after the pandemic. And unfortunately the news are not that great. The latest report shows that this year we'll see the second largest rise in emissions in history. And so that means we have bounced right back and are even doing more. So there's a lot of work to be done. And you saw with the leader summit on earth day, where several countries made ambitious commitments to keep their emissions down and to cut them to certain levels in the next, in this decade and suddenly to net zero by 2050. But unfortunately we are not doing well enough yet. We need to do even more deeper cuts. These emissions are on the rise. We need to be a lot more committed to action, especially in this decade. So I hope that we'll be able to see those signs again, but as economies are powering up again, they're powering up in the same old way, it seems, because the news from the IAA were that emissions are on their way up.

Dima Moussa: That's really not what we wanted to hear. And unfortunately we're proving again and again, that we're not learning. You know, even from bad experiences, there are some good lessons to be learned. And obviously we're, we're still a long way, long way, ways from, from doing that. And you know, just as to, to wrap up our conversation, I know you said, you know, I like this, my new favorite expression that you used is “monopoly of wisdom.” But in that spirit, you know, having you here today, what would be some, you know, you have a lot of wisdom when it comes to the environment and being a prominent activist in Kenya. What are some words of wisdom that you would like to send out? And especially to women and girls in your country and worldwide? 

Wanjira Mathai: You know, I'm always inspired by the fact that there's so much to do, and there's so many of us who can pick something and commit to it. So my advice is always, especially to young people, find something that you care about and commit to it. You don't have, it doesn't have to be two things or three things. Find one thing, one thing that you really care about, learn as much as you can about it, join as many groups that are affiliated with it, affinity groups and, and learn and learn and learn, and then engage with it. If you care about water, then focus on water. If you care about animals, do the same. But I think it's extremely important that you absolutely focus on something, that you care about something. We often say to children, do you have something that you care about that who else, other than you, we say this to them, who else, other than you will be the beneficiary of the gift of a good education or the gift of a good life that you're living wherever we are in this world, that we are alive and healthy, who else other than yourself will benefit from that? Identify it and work on it.

Dima Moussa: Those are such great words and great advice. And you know, this focus on the younger generation is really important. Wanjira, I want to thank you so much for your time today. It has been really a pleasure and an honor to actually interview you today. Thank you so much. 

Wanjira Mathai: Thank you very much. Dima. A pleasure.

Closing: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at

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