Women Speak: Bringing Gender to the Forefront in Environmental Justice

“Women as a constituency are a strategic, powerful, and beautiful force that is often not recognized, supported or mobilized into action—despite clear evidence that women are key to making the societal, economical, political and ecological changes we so desperately need. These points of leverage need to be recognized and acted upon.”

These are the words of Osprey Orielle Lake, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International, a climate justice-based initiative—rooted in feminism—that unites women worldwide as critical forces for ecological and social justice. And it’s the motivating idea behind WECAN’s latest project: Women Speak: Stories, Case Studies And Solutions From The Frontlines Of Climate Change, a digital database of hundreds of articles, interviews, podcasts, videos, reports and other resources designed to shift the status quo and challenge presiding systems of exploitation at the intersections of gender and environmental justice.

Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo work to reforest the Itombwe region as a part of WECAN/SAFECO program. Photo by: Stany Nzabas

Women are at once the most adversely and disproportionally impacted by climate change and environmental injustice, and yet are indispensable leaders of just, effective and lasting solutions. They are responsible for more than half of the world’s food production, are responsible for 80 percent of all consumer purchases in the United States alone and currently comprise about 80 percent of global climate refugees. As such, their intimate experiences and stories make them the most powerful untapped resource for building effective and just solutions to climate change, both in local communities and at the international level. Thus, a diverse team of WECAN researchers and allies have been working vigorously to collect, combine and share multimedia materials that highlight the cross-cutting work of women activists, leaders, policy-makers, educators, sustainability innovators, artists and more—all of whom are articulating and actualizing solutions to the most pressing and complex aspects of climate change today.

The culmination of this concerted project comes today with the launch of WECAN’s online database, which continuously collates stories by and about women. It’s broken down into 15 categories—spanning everything from farming and land rights to renewable energy to biodiversity and Indigenous rights.

Osprey Orielle Lake, Casey Camp-Horinek and Neema Namadamu present during a Women for Climate Justice event at the United Nations climate negotiations. Photo by: Emily Arasim/WECAN International

From the Middle Himalayan range of India to the heart of Ecuadorian Amazon to halls of Environmental and Climate Justice department at the NAACP in Baltimore, women everywhere are demonstrating day in and day out that they have unique ideas and essential skills to bring to the table at this critical point in history, and that their voices and leadership are fundamental to just and effective action.

In honor of the new initiative and in humble recognition of the many incredible women who’s unrelenting work and inspirational stories helped bring it to fruition, Ms. spoke with Osprey Orielle Lake about climate justice, gender inequality, Indigenous women leaders and more. Over the next ten days, Ms. will continue to share our conversations with some of these incredible women activists and leaders. Those interviewed represent but a handful of the hundreds of women choreographing diverse climate work around the globe and the material demonstrates the powerful confluence of feminism and climate justice, providing important examples of the seemingly infinite array of women leading social and ecologic justice and solutions worldwide.

How does climate change disproportionately and systematically impact women?

When we analyze root causes, it is clear that women experience climate change with disproportionate severity precisely because their basic rights continue to be denied in varying forms and intensities around the world. Enforced gender inequality reduces women’s physical and economic mobility, voice and opportunity in many places, making them more vulnerable to mounting environmental stresses.

Women comprise about 80 percent of climate refugees, and 2009 studies report that of the 26 million people estimated to have been displaced by climate change, 20 million of them are women. Importantly, the poor are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and the majority of the 1.5 billion people living on one dollar a day or less are women. Studies show that women are more susceptible to the dangerous effects of toxic pollution, and increasing evidence is demonstrating the many ways in which women are being impacted by, and passing along, severe environmental health issues to the next generations.

Indigenous women, women from low-income communities and women from the Global South bear an even heavier burden from the impacts of climate change because of the historic and continuing impacts of colonialism, racism and inequality; and in many cases, because they are more reliant upon natural resources for their survival and/or live in areas that have poor infrastructure. Drought, flooding and unpredictable and extreme weather patterns present life or death challenges for many women, who are most often the ones responsible for providing food, water and energy for their families. In many frontline communities, gendered and sexual violence against women is added on top of other dire impacts perpetuated by the extractive industries that bear down on their homelands.

However against all odds and against great challenges, women are demonstrating every day that they have unique and essential ideas and skills to offer at this turning point in history, as humanity faces a crisis of survival and must make crucial changes and decisions about how we are living with the Earth and each other.

What it is about women’s unique positionality that makes their voices and stories so fundamental to this movement?

Studies show us that worldwide, when women are empowered, there are immense benefits to entire communities and societies overall. Sustainable and local economies grow, populations stabilize and children’s health and education improve—all of which are foundations for a sustainable path forward. In many countries, women get out the vote and vote more often, and lead on environmental and social legislation when elected to public office. Women’s involvement in decision-making has important implications for climate change—a study of 130 countries found that countries with higher female parliamentary representation are more prone to ratify international environmental treaties. It has additionally been shown that women are one of the most vital actors in peace making.

Women farmers feed the world—and Indigenous women and women of the Global South hold vast knowledge and skill gleaned through their traditional role as healers, culture shapers, and caretakers of water and land. Indigenous women are at the forefront of local and global efforts to protect and defend their territories of immense socio-ecological diversity—taking action on the frontline of grassroots movements and struggles, and within international climate negotiations and political processes. 80 percent of the biodiversity left on Earth now is in the hands of Indigenous peoples. Due to their close relationship with the land, Indigenous women hold unique and invaluable Traditional Ecological Knowledge, as well as spiritual and philosophical understandings critical to healing and maintenance of the Earth’s climate and cycles.

Women all across the world act as an immense force of social change in directing family’s values, lifestyle and consumption habits. Women as a constituency are a strategic, powerful, and beautiful force that is often not recognized, supported or mobilized into action—despite clear evidence that women are key to making the societal, economical, political and ecological changes we so desperately need. These points of leverage need to be recognized and acted upon.

For long-lasting change, it is also essential that we recognize, understand and transform the dominant social constructs that lie at the root of such gender inequality, as well as the destruction of the Earth. We need to look at systemic change and challenge old paradigms of patriarchy, colonization, imperialism and capitalism. Women engaged in social and ecological change see the connection, and are willing and able to unite across borders to challenge systems of oppression and build a healthy and livable future.

What inspired the Women Speak project? What has the gestation process been like?

Since I founded the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network organization, the stories of women leading solutions on the frontlines of climate change has been central to our mission. While we have seen and shared the quantitative evidence of the vital role women have in sustainability solutions, it also became clear that we need to make the qualitative case so that people could hear the actual stories about what women are doing the work in the fields, in the forests, in the streets and in the halls of power.

We have found that in the face of the hottest temperatures ever recorded, the displacement of millions around the world and the devastating impacts of environmental degradation on the Earth and our diverse communities—the most pressing story that needs to be heard is that of women on the frontlines of climate change. Studies worldwide demonstrate that women must be engaged at all levels of participation, leadership and decision-making to build effective and just social and ecological programs and communities.

The goal of Women Speak is to create an accessible and ever-growing source of information, research and multimedia storytelling for frontline Earth defenders, policymakers, journalists, activists, educators, students, and all those seeking to understand and demonstrate why and how women are paramount to just action on climate change, and the defense and protection of the web of life itself. Included in the database are also pieces authored and produced by women climate leaders on diverse issues; as well as information documenting the many different ways in which women across the world are being impacted.

The stories and solutions included in this project are rooted in a climate justice framework, and with a feminist lens, and are meant to provide a vision going forward towards a just transition to a clean energy future, respect for our living Earth and justice for all peoples. They are presented as a tool for navigation of issues of environmental racism, inequality, colonialism and dysfunctional economic and political systems that depend on patriarchy, extraction and endless growth on a finite planet. Through this collection and offering of materials, we seek to highlight on-the ground solutions, strategies and worldviews that uplift women’s leadership with results that can be shared, replicated, upscaled and used for inspiration worldwide.

Additionally, select stories presented in this project reach outside of the core women-climate-justice nexus, in recognition of the many deep intersectionalities and complex dynamics impacting women and the Earth around the world. While select stories presented on topics such as women’s work cooperatives, racial justice and economic/consumer paradigms may not directly mention climate change, we know that for a just and sustainable future these issues cannot be separated. In a similar vein, there is a Rights of Nature category presented in the recognition that this vital legal framework and worldview must be considered if we are to re-vision and re-build a world that works for women, and for all life on Earth.

Women standing for climate justice refuse to accept current destructive paradigms, and we are collecting together to declare that women are going to continue to rise ever more boldly in defense of all we hold dear. And, that justice on issues of economy, gender, race and immigration are completely interwoven with preventing the destruction of the planet for profit and power.

There is also something else that women are bringing to the conversation, which cannot be left out and that is our emotional and spiritual intelligence. I have been in international forums where the most impactful work has been women conveying our deep and fierce love for our children and their future, for our homelands and the very web of life itself, and to do so in public spaces—and to do so as we speak truth to power. Sometimes these kinds of emotional or spiritual statements we are told are too soft for the public discourse on climate change, but I would argue that it is precisely women speaking from their hearts that is too often missing and something that is very much needed to break down barriers so we can have breakthroughs to real action with justice at the center.

Jessica Merino has divided her time over the last several years between Community Studies at UC Santa Cruz and exploring and reporting on women’s issues across cultures. She has interned with the White House-recognized organization Girls Write Now, Creative Time Reports and a startup social enterprise where she shared the stories of South East Asian women artisans with the international community. She is now an editorial intern at Ms., where she reports on issues related to women’s health.

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