Women and the Environment: Roles, Risks and Rights

Blog by Theresa W. Devasahayam, SI UN Representative for Bangkok.

“Each year, the month of March is a crucial time for women’s organisations worldwide as we take stock of the progress women and girls in different parts of the world have made in the last year as well as the barriers to advancement they continue to face. Leading up to the Commission of Status of Women 2020 were a series of meetings, the last of which dealt with issues related to the environment and climate change.

On 3 March, a virtual conference was organised in conjunction with the Feminist and Women’s Movement Action Plan (fwMAP) and Beijing+ 25 on the Environment. Moderated by Ms Soon-Young Yoon together with Melissa Upreti and Krishanti Dhamaraj; as Representative for the UN Bangkok node, I decided to participate in the conference since several countries in the Asia Pacific are struggling with a range of environmental and climate change issues: pressure on land, habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity, water scarcity and water pollution and natural disasters. Among the prominent speakers and aptly well-qualified in their fields were: Bridget Burns from WEDO (Women’s Environment and Development Organisation); Liane Schalatek from Heinrich Boll/USA; and Emilia Reyes from Equidad de Genero, each of whom spoke to a range of key issues.

The overarching theme was that climate change is a multifaceted problem, having social, economic and political implications on different communities. Key concerns reiterated in the presentations included the following: that climate change is fundamentally a human rights concern; that is, threats to the environment have the effect of violating each and every person’s right to access food, water, shelter, healthcare, and education with dire consequences especially on socially excluded communities.

It was also acknowledged that climate change and its devastating effects on the environment are bound up with feminist roles. It has been argued that women feel the adverse effects of climate change on the environment much more than men. In fact, the asymmetrical power structure marking women’s relationship to men lead to women being more vulnerable to climate change. For example, women are at greater risk of dropping out of formal education than men and thus would be less informed about climate change.

The question of climate hazards, such as natural disasters, and how they negatively impact on women reinforces their vulnerability. In crisis situations not only are women not able to access help, as easily as men; but they are more likely to face security threats such as being vulnerable to becoming victims of violence. The state has also been culpable in perpetuating threats to women. There have been instances in which female environmental land defenders’ have been silenced and, at worse, murdered. That corporations have reinforced an extractive value system bent on perpetuating the use of fossil fuels bears heavy costs not only on the environment; but also on the survival of many in the world.

Climate change would also have a devastating effect on other socially excluded groups such as those living in the Global South, indigenous people, persons living with disabilities, older persons, the LGBT group, and so forth. The focus is to shift the analytical lens to viewing gender justice/social justice as being a core element in environmental issues; and there is a need to tackle the climate change crisis through political protections so that socially excluded groups will not be forgotten in the agenda of states. Hence, gender and social justice should be embedded in climate goals.

As widely acknowledged, climate finance is a key issue in tackling climate change. All finance flows, both private and public, should be tempered by social justice. Women should not be seen as victims but rather the point of departure in all climate finance initiatives is to capitalise on women’s capacity. Moreover, female leadership is a necessary component in climate negotiation. Governments should not be hung up only on quantitative measures but also recognise that there is a need to address the power differentials between the sexes. Last all investment instruments should be climate gender compatible. Thus when we talk about climate change finance, in a nutshell, we are talking about the (gendered) politics of financing. What this means is that there should be supportive regulatory shifts related to climate finance within the feminist movement action plan.

Learning Lessons

In particular, the “how to” advocate the Paris Agreement adopted at the COP21 in Paris in December 2015 was recognised in the online conference to be a crucial facet to achieving the goals and principles of the Agreement. Undoubtedly, members of Soroptimist International have great potential to be forerunners in the fight towards environmental preservation and ensuring inclusive development because our strength is at the grassroots level. Because we organise for the benefit of communities, as a global women’s movement, we are change-makers and leaders in the environmental and climate change area; especially through our numerous “water projects” implemented across the world. But beyond that, that we have gained the attention and respect of local governments through these efforts is critical. Since we have already begun to be involved in this “conversation” with them, we might want to consider how thus do we keep these projects sustainable so that they make a “real” impact at the community level, on the one hand; while keeping alive our dialogue and interactions with local governments; on the other. Only then can we speak of success and that our efforts have had an impact on bringing about a transformative system to ensure greater gender equality”.

Feature image: Theresa Devasahayam, SI UN Representative in Bangkok.

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