BY EMILY B. N'DOMBAXE DOLA
At last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Poland, COP24, promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women was a central theme. There were many activities and events around the Gender Action Plan (GAP) established at COP23, to increase awareness about the role of women in climate action and the importance of “gender-responsive” climate policy. The GAP aims to foster women’s “full, equal and meaningful” participation, together with a “gender perspective”, in processes under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC). As gender inequality remains pervasive across the globe, and, in the case of climate change, women are disproportionately affected by it, the need for the GAP is understandable.
However, gender action should not be limited to “gender-responsive” technical fixes such as increasing the number of women in leadership positions and policy discussions. Attention needs to be paid to deeper social, cultural and political structures and relations across societies that lead to inequality in the first place. Women’s participation should go beyond “explicit” gender issues, and not merely used to gain a “gender-responsive” stamp of approval. And, gender binaries should not be reproduced by excluding non-binary gender identities from the equation, underestimating the role of men, and placing the burden of action on women in need of “empowerment” to be “agents of change”. Even if the focus is to be (justifiably) on women, women are not a homogeneous social group with equal gender experiences and perspectives on gender relations.
In essence: gender is complex, and so is gender inequality. This is where the concept of “intersectionality” becomes so important. As previously explored, intersectionality conveys how multiple forms of identity and discrimination are interlinked, shaping the experiences of individuals and groups within different political, structural and cultural contexts. To understand the concept's value for the equality of girls and women in climate action, the first step is to look at the realities and experiences of girls and women involved in said activities. During COY14 (Conference of Youth) and COP24 in Katowice last year, I had the pleasure to interview 7 girls and young women from across the world to understand more about their lives and their involvement in climate action. Below are their stories.
“Not Feeling Listened To"
Kaidynce is a teenage girl from Tuktoyaktuk, a small town in North-West Canada. She is Inuit, from the Inuvialuit community. Tuktoyaktuk is a coastal settlement that is predominantly indigenous, with its residents seeing first-hand the effects of climate change. Houses are sinking due to coastal erosion and rising sea levels, and people are unsure about what to do about it. Food production systems have been affected too: whereas fruits like berries are taking longer to grow, fish like salmon are more abundant than normal. Another prominent issue is that whilst the community is used to travelling on ice, they can no longer do it easily due to seasonal changes and safety concerns. Higher temperatures have meant more snow, and it is harder for people to tell if the ocean, lakes or creeks they normally travel on are frozen or not.
In essence, the natural world of Kaidynce’s community is changing, and with that, everything else. In particular, Kaidynce is concerned about how their traditional indigenous knowledge is becoming obsolete and less applicable owed to changes to their environment, and subsequently way of life, due to climate change. Nevertheless, though Kaidynce didn’t discard the importance of climate adaptation, she argued that climate mitigation was the main imperative: without it, there wouldn’t be anything left to adapt to. Indeed, as part of mitigation efforts, her community has been using windmills to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. In addition, there are ongoing efforts to educate youth about the environmental changes affecting their community, to push for the inclusion of climate change in the school curriculum, and to form local groups (made up of harvesters, experts, youth, researchers…) that can work on collecting data, monitoring the land, and acting on climate change.
At a personal level, Kaidynce was involved in a community research project from the University of Alberta, focused on youth involvement in knowledge production, mainly in relation to climate change and indigenous knowledge. Kaidynce was one of the First Nation and Inuit teenagers at the 14th Conference of Youth (COY) who showcased their resulting research from this initiative. As an Inuit teen, she contended that young girls like her aren’t very involved and/or represented in climate change discussions and action, even if people are working to improve this. In her opinion, the reasons for this lack of inclusion range from the girls’ own shyness to them “not feeling listened to”. Indeed, Kaidynce shared surprise at how people cared for and listened to her, and her peers, discussing their research during the COY session. She particularly liked when an indigenous girl from New Zealand stood up and spoke in her native language, showing solidarity with indigenous communities in Canada. It made her feel appreciated.
“A Strong Independent Woman Is a Strong Independent Community”
Hailing from Solomon Islands (Oceania), Sharon is a 27-year-old Melanesian woman who works on youth issues in her rural community, Santa Cruz. There, the youth unemployment rate is over 30% and there is a high level of early school leavers. Her work aims to achieve long-term economic prospects for youth, as the country’s population is growing but jobs aren’t. Climate change just adds to these existing social and economic issues. As sea levels rise, her island is sinking. Freshwater ecosystems are being salinized, with food systems and food security affected, and ocean acidification is harming corals and fish populations. For Sharon, coastal erosion is not something she has to read about on the internet: she is living with its ramifications. Daily activities like shopping have become uncertain: she once went to the market for a certain type of cabbage just to discover it doesn’t exist anymore.
Sharon believes that climate change has a particularly strong impact on women in her community. They are more vulnerable to it than men since they are in charge of house chores that entail looking for freshwater and food for their families, and deciding what should be cultivated in the land. In contrast, men tend to do jobs that earn money and that women can’t do, such as clearing the land, gardening and fishing. Moreover, Sharon argues that disabled people, elderly people and children are also very vulnerable to climate change, since they often depend on others for their survival. An example she discussed is how disabled people who are unable to look for food for themselves can suffer during food scarcity situations, as their carers might choose to feed themselves over them, neglecting their caring responsibilities.
Sharon runs an initiative to promote the economic empowerment of women. She saves part of her own money to give to women with business plans. Once the businesses are up and running, the women pass part of their profits onto other women for the same purposes, leading to a cycle of communal support. So far, she has worked with five women. For Sharon, “a strong independent woman is a strong independent community”. Without them, “all the community is affected, all the country is affected”. Even climate action like adaptation starts with women. This is because women use their incomes to invest in their children’s education, key for their future self-reliance and to educate them on climate change. Without this educational foundation, proper climate adaptation efforts wouldn’t be able to occur, as people wouldn’t be educated on the issue.
“Peace, Culture & Education”
As a kid, Cai May got involved in Soka Gakkai International because of her faith, Buddhism. The grassroots organisation, together with her Buddhist beliefs, inculcated her the importance of “peace, culture and education”, as well as the idea that everyone has potential and they just need to tap it. Her experience in the group also aligned her with social justice principles, encouraged her to form her own ideas, and triggered in her an interest in the environment.
At present, she studies a master in Environment Economics and Policy at Duke University, and she was recently part of the Malaysian Youth Delegation at COP24. As a member of the climate movement, Cai May’s goal is to bring knowledge back home in Malaysia. She believes there is a lack of capacity at a local level, wanting to bridge the gap between a desire for action and resources. When her parents introduced her to her faith, it was embedded in her the need to be active in her community and stand up for injustice in the world, as she believes everyone deserves to be happy and heard.
Cai May finds working in climate issues in Malaysia harder than in the USA. Even if it is tough to navigate the USA as an international student, there is better access to networks, data and information there. In Malaysia the primary focus is economic development, to improve people’s quality of life. Equality and diversity issues, such as gender and sexuality, cultural and traditional values, are important too, though poverty remains the main concern. She learned this when her team challenged the Malaysian Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change on the subsidisation of fossil fuels. As a response, the Ministry explained to them that there are other important issues aside from climate change, like poverty, and that the poor in the country rely heavily on fossil fuels. Sustainable development is Malaysia's key challenge: there is a lack of sustainable infrastructure to support it, and this is perpetuated by the prevailing system of heavy fossil fuels subsidies and vehicle-centred infrastructural designs.
Another double-edged issue is the deforestation of Eastern Malaysia: plantations provide much-needed jobs, but they hinder green development and are not sustainable solutions, as land cover in the region is changing unsustainably. Due to this, Cai May contends there is a need for a just transition as part of climate action, actively considering the inequality and social dimensions of plans for a greener society. Though she is a young woman and perceives difficulties in being a foreign student in the USA, Cai May still sees herself as privileged in relation to the Malaysian context: she is Chinese, she speaks English, she lives in the city and she is educated. She believes youth activists often may come from a privileged background too, which might limit their viewpoint and scope of action, so she deems imperative for them to properly engage with vulnerable and local communities when doing their advocacy work.
“Kalau Ko Diam Kitong Punah”/ “If You Are Silent, We Die”
In the West Papua Province of Indonesia, where the 22-year-old Alfa is from and lives, there is a large tropical rainforest coverage. This ecosystem has the potential to help Indonesia to address climate change, yet, paradoxically, it is also threatened by it. “The forest is like our mother, it is our source of life” Alfa stated, talking about her community. She emphasises how the forests have many economic benefits that help people’s livelihoods, ensuring that their basic needs are covered. At the same time, the indigenous people that live in Papua have their own conceptions and practices of conservation. As an indigenous person, Alfa recognises how there are dozens of indigenous Papuan communities with their own long-standing traditions on how to protect the environment, using their historical local knowledge.
Alfa’s community uses forest resources sustainably to make ecological products for their everyday life, such as traditional bags known as “noken” and herbal medicine from produce like red fruit. Due to this, climate change has a significant impact on them, as it is altering the nature they depend on. Moreover, as the weather gets less cold, traditional agriculture becomes less effective and applicable, leading to produce of less quality. Alfa is specifically from the Arfak Mountains region, which is a traditional indigenous area particularly affected by this issue. She believes that young people in her community need to care more about climate change and the environment. She pushes for more awareness amongst the youth, as caring for their own land is important for the next generation and for the future. She stresses the importance of a saying in her native West Papuan language, “Kalau Ko Diam Kitong Punah”, which means “if you are silent, we die”. For Alfa, youth have the power to change the world.
“A Significant Contribution to Nepal’s Economy”
From a middle-class urban community in the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, Pramisha believes her background and identity influenced her involvement in the climate movement. Her academic studies, including a degree in Agricultural Sciences, made her realise how agriculture makes "a significant contribution to Nepal’s economy". She also learned about the stress imposed by climate change in this sector and practice, and this realisation was what pushed her to get involved in climate action. Certainly, Pramisha and her community are personally affected by climate change. For instance, the rice she and her family consumed used to be produced in their own native village. However, now, due to droughts and erratic rainfall patterns, not much rice production is possible, so they have to rely on rice imports from India.
Linked to the above, Nepal has been experiencing a decline in water resources, with problems in drinking water supply which have been linked to the aforementioned effects of climate change. As a result, a sense of urgency to act drives Pramisha’s work in the climate movement. Before she knew much about climate change, she used to spend her free time hanging out with friends, playing games and going on long vacations. However, now, climate advocacy and volunteering occupy a great part of her spare time. This shows the earnestness she feels towards the issue, and how it is affecting her country and community. As a matter of fact, Pramisha is a bottom-lining member at YOUNGO (the UNFCCC Children and Youth NGOs constituency) and a member of CliMates, particularly involved in agricultural issues as she is the facilitator of the YOUNGO Agriculture working group.
“Do Not Waste Water Even If You Are in a Running River”
From Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, Nouhad is a seasoned climate activist. She is a member of the Arab Youth Climate Movement, the Mediterranean Youth Climate Network, and the Climate Action Network - Arab World. From a middle-class urban community, she is a Muslim whose faith and upbringing influenced her initial interest in environmental issues. Nouhad was raised by a liberal dad and conservative mother. The later always stressed her the importance of saving water due to the teachings of the Islamic figure Prophet Mohammed, who said, “do not waste water even if you are in a running river”, and who called for not throwing garbage on the streets. This is owed to the important religious notion of being and staying clean.
By the age of 14-15 years old, Nouhad started to take part in environmental initiatives, such as planting trees. It wasn’t until she was studying at university when she was introduced to the concept of climate change. A professor who used to attend UN climate change conferences and who worked in the UNFCCC introduced her to the issue. Seeing him as an idol because of his work, Nouhad became highly interested in climate change and began to do research on the topic, eventually attending COP23. She then started an International Youth Climate Movement chapter in Lebanon, overseeing it as its president for three and a half years. The organisation’s work included grassroots activities like doing educational sessions on climate change in schools and universities.
Nouhad’s country and community are affected by climate change in different ways. For starters, there has been an increase in the occurrence of severe and intense rains, coupled with the growing incidence of intense hot waves. During the summer, temperatures didn’t use to be higher than 36OC, but now they reach 40oC. People in Lebanon used to experience four seasons (winter, spring, autumn and summer), but now the year in the Levantine country feels more like just a long summer and a long winter, with very short spring and fall periods. In addition, Beirut is a city that might be affected by sea level rise if the global average temperature increase goes beyond 1.5oC/2OC degrees. Currently, rural areas are already being affected by droughts and water shortages, which has negatively affected agricultural systems, leading to migration waves from rural to urban centres, which poses another challenge in itself.
“The Future and Lives of Young People Are at Stake”
Communications officer of Children Community Initiative for Development. Country and programme coordinator of Plant-for-the-Planet International. Member of the YOUNGO bottom-lining team. Regional Focal Point of the UN Major Group for Children & Youth West & Central Africa (Disaster Risk Reduction working group). Fatou, a young woman from the Gambia who lives in Banjul, is dynamically involved in a variety of initiatives and issues beyond climate change. When she was young, she realised that her city and street used to be littered a lot and garbage left in the street for weeks without the city council truck picking it up. She felt this was really unhealthy and unconducive, giving her the motivation to be vocal about environmental issues.
Fatou understands the huge impact of climate change on the Gambia, as the country has been badly affected by droughts, and 80% of its population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods and sustenance. Most people in the Gambia are farmers, with women being involved in horticulture and men in agricultural production. Thus, droughts cause a lot of issues in the country, with Gambians being severely harmed by them. In addition, the threat of sea level rise is particularly high for the nation’s capital: according to scientists, if the sea level rises by just one meter, the entire city of Banjul could be flooded.
As a young person, Fatou believes that it is everyone's responsibility to take care of his/her environment because this is a common threat to all which needs urgent attention. Fatou not only views herself as personally threatened by climate change, but she feels that “the future and lives of young people are at stake, especially the generation to come”. She attributes this to the negative and unhelpful actions of present political leaders. Whilst Fatou acknowledges how young people like herself are involved in climate advocacy, enlightenment, and education, she feels that there is a need for them to do more.
Being heard and indigenous solidarity. Social vulnerability and women's livelihoods. Traditional knowledge and sustainability. Contextual privilege and social status. National interests and expertise. Upbringing and faith. Youth and their concerning future. Many things can be highlighted in the stories presented. The diverse realities of Kaidynce, Sharon, Cai May, Alfa, Pramisha, Nouhad and Fatou, which are almost certainly deeper than explored in this article, are a microsome of how girls and women engage in climate action across the globe, and how that work relates to their lives and/or identities. Diverse and multi-dimensional personal narratives coexist within this post, as multiple identities and issues intersect in women and girls’ experiences.
None of the stories is equal to the other (even if the same line of questioning was applied to all). This shows the diversity and complexity of being a girl/woman and being more than just a girl/woman. Being affected by gender inequality, being affected by more than gender inequality. Not all women and girls are equally disadvantaged, some are (more) privileged, and already have a seat at the policy table, which might be unrepresentative of other girls and women across the globe. Even distinctive but homogenising labels such as “indigenous” and “Global South” are not enough without considering local contexts and communities. I bet this sounds pretty obvious and straight-up common sense right now, but it is often lost within gender equality rhetoric, policy and action processes (and not just in climate action).
Overall, the UNFCCC’s GAP is a commendable step in the right direction: considering gender perspectiveS and inequalitIES should always be part of climate policy, negotiations and action. However, to achieve truly transformational and intersectional climate justice, attention must be paid to structures and relations outside the UNFCCC. The backgrounds, identities and experiences that make up the everyday lives of girls and women shape their ability and decision to be part of climate action, to begin with, as well as their interests and concerns. In addition, a single narrative on gender inequality is not enough, and using only a gender lens to address the issues affecting girls and women is misguided. For a proper intersectional approach, there is a need to go beyond exploring identities, delving deeper into how multiple and interlinked experiences of discrimination and oppression affect girls and women in different contexts. Lastly, acknowledging this piece fails to do so, there is a need to engage more with men and non-binary people, going beyond narrow ideas of gender and gender issues