Women are both disproportionately affected by the climate crisis and under-represented in global decision-making processes and labour markets. Despite these challenges, they are leading the climate movement because:
‘They’ve had to come up with the answers at every stage, whether they’re engineers, chefs, farmers, housewives or artists.’
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland.
Without gender-equality and racial justice, there is no environmental justice. Ecofeminism was born from an awareness that a holistic solution to all must be created and globally adopted. In broad terms, this movement brings together (you guessed it), environmentalism and feminism in both political activism and intellectual critique. Whilst there are many manifestations of this movement (and there may be some women we mention here that wouldn’t self-identify as ecofeminists), there is a shared awareness that the historical domination over women and the degradation of nature are both ‘consequences of patriarchy and capitalism’.
As patriarchy still thrives, women continue to be the subject rather than the steering force behind climate related policy-making. A distinct lack of women’s voices is even evident in the COP26 leadership team. COP26 (UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties), is a multi-national conference taking place later this year in Glasgow, UK, to tackle the climate crisis in a joint, global effort. When the leadership team for the 26th Conference was first introduced, it was entirely male. This was heavily criticised by Fiona Harvey, Environment Correspondent for The Guardian last year, and challenged by a legion of women activists calling for equal space for women in leadership roles. Progress has been made in diversifying the leading team of four by inviting Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth. SHEChangesClimate, the collective instigated by Harvey’s article, know this is still not enough:
‘this is as upstream as it gets: the framing and narrative of the COP26 agenda. [...] Those are the frameworks for the next five or so years, so we need to make sure that what comes out of that is the best it can be. The question was, can it be when only half of the planet is represented?”
Antoinette Vermilye, Co-founder of SHEChangesClimate.
So not only are women disproportionately affected by the climate crisis but their voices and experiences are under-represented. How exactly are women affected differently from men I hear you ask?
We must begin by emphasising that not all countries and communities are facing the same challenges from the climate crisis today. By marking dates in the diaries for targets and tipping points of climate change, decision-makers from the top-polluting nations have allowed themselves to consider the impacts of the crisis as future challenges, which triggers large-scale complacency in the present. However, the climate crisis is already affecting communities in other parts of the world. To replace the indiscriminate term ‘Global South’ these places (predominantly those that have been colonised, either in the past or remaining so today), are now defined as Mapa (Most Affected People and Areas). Those most affected by climate change are the communities that have a greater reliance on local natural resources and have the least capacity to respond to extreme weather conditions that are growing in frequency as a direct result of climate change.
Within these communities, women are often even more reliant on natural resources as gender inequality means they own fewer assets. Globally, women earn 18% less than men. A 2016 Report from The World Bank, Women, Business and the Law 2016: Getting to Equal, revealed laws in 155 of the 173 national economies studied, that differentiate on the basis of sex directly impacting women’s economic prospects. In addition, gender-differentiated roles within society, such as continuing to carry the burden of household work and childcare can constrain women in times of emergency. The UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Report on Gender and Climate Change reported how the marginalisation of women to within the household had a direct impact during the 2004 Asian tsunami where 70% of the victims were women. Whilst men had left the house to work, women and children were trapped inside by the natural disaster (note: this is one specific example and not representative of how all women are affected by natural disasters. The full UNDP Report is a great source for more information).
It is precisely because women are most affected that they should be heard and this is why women are leading the climate movement.
First female President of Ireland, Mary Robinson and co-hosts, comedian and writer Maeve Higgins and series producer Thimali Kodikara, have created a whole podcast dedicated to raising the profile of feminist solutions to the climate crisis. Mothers of Invention is an uplifting, inspiring and funny fountain of knowledge. In each episode they speak with black, brown, indigenous and other marginalised game-changers from across the world to share their ingenious and life-saving climate solutions and reveal just how much women and non-binary folk are at the forefront of the climate justice movement.
By episode 5 of series 1 they had already booked Dr Vandana Shiva, world-renowned author, physicist turned ecologist, food sovereignty advocate and activist among many other accolades. In Against the Grain they delved into agriculture and the future of food in the climate crisis.
Towards the end of the 1970s, as Dr Shiva was finishing her PhD, she made a pledge to herself that she would commit her vacation time to volunteer with the Chipko movement. Chipko means to hug, or embrace in Hindi and the women’s movement that the word re-inspired in the 1970s - with a legacy dating back to the 18th century - did just this, protesting the felling of trees and forests by hugging them. In volunteering with these women, Dr Shiva learnt:
Her time with Chipko laid the foundation for the national movement she has nurtured over the past 30 years: Navdanya. This is a network of seed keepers, and India’s largest seed bank, that reinstates women at the centre of the food economy with an intelligent and compassionate relationship with the environment. Using ancient practices such as systems of exchange whereby you take a seed and return one and a quarter when you are next able to, this network is growing climate-resilient seeds to foster seed sovereignty. They understand how integral soil rejuvenation is to food security and are debunking the detrimental myth that we need chemicals on our crops to feed growing populations. They nurture their soil, water sources and local biodiversity to ensure climate stability and in turn the health of their communities. Navdanya is built on the ecofeminist theory that patriarchy and capitalism have severed our relationship with nature. They support women to reinstate them at the centre of knowledge, economies and power to create life-saving, feminist climate-solutions.
Dr Vandana Shiva is an infinite source of wisdom and advice but she had a simple message to share with Mary and Maeve:
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As Dr Vandana says, as people of the world we have a duty of care to our planet, to ourselves and to other people and thus we must care about the climate crisis today.