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Maathai, Wangari M.

Abstract and Keywords

Wangari Muta Maathai (1940–2011) was an environmentalist and human rights activist, internationally recognized as the founder of Green Belt Movement in Kenya. She was also the first black woman and first environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Keywords: Green Belt Movement, National Council of Women of Kenya, women rights, environmental conservation

Wangari Muta Maathai (1940–2011) was born in a small village in Neyri, Kenya (Africa), into a farming family. As a child, Maathai was an exceptionally bright child. Unlike other Kenyan woman, she was sent to school and because of her stellar performance in school she was awarded with a scholarship to attend college in United States in 1960. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1964 and master’s degree in biological sciences from University of Pittsburg in 1965. She became the first black woman in East or Central Africa to earn a PhD by completing her doctoral studies in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi in 1971.

Maathai began her career as a professor of veterinary anatomy in University of Nairobi (1971–1977), and became the first woman to hold a professorship position at the University. Maathai entered into politics by joining the National Council of Women of Kenya (1976–1987), an organization committed to improving the status of African woman, which made her aware of the interrelationship between the problem of deforestation and increased food insecurity for women in Kenya. Quitting teaching in 1977, Maathai became the founder of the Green Belt Movement (1977–2011), a grass-roots mobilization of African women that resulted in planting 20 million trees by educating the women about the interconnections between environmental conservation, food security, and improvement in their quality of life. She vehemently opposed the government’s policies and projects resulting in deforestation of lands and often was subjected to police arrests and beatings for staging protests and oppositions. In 2002, she won a seat in the National Assembly of Kenya and was appointed the Deputy Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife. Since 2002, she was influential in enacting laws to protect the environment and promote human and women’s rights. She received numerous awards for the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, which spread beyond the borders of Kenya through the Pan-African Green Belt Network and Friends of the Green Belt Movement, North America, the most prestigious being the Noble Peace Prize in 2004. See also Unbowed: My autobiography (2008) by Wangari M. Maathai.