Without women—especially Indigenous and rural women, whose communities are most affected by climate change—climate justice will not go far.
With the international climate talks beginning in Glasgow, many are weary of the deceptive and failing policy agendas that governments and big polluters are pushing. The narrative around the climate continues to be dominated by governments and corporate lobbies, rather than by frontline communities and civil society.
The climate strategies being devised often avoid urgent action, as explained in a recent report that showed how these strategies don’t respond to the needs and wellbeing of the most affected and underrepresented groups, particularly Indigenous and rural women, who hold the least responsible for the crisis, and in fact have the most effective solutions to offer.
The lack of political will to tackle the root causes of the climate crisis or remove the systemic barriers that stand in the way of effective action is rapidly driving us to the point of no return. This is blatantly clear with the popular ‘Net Zero’ pledges by governments and polluting industries. Upon closer look, it is evident that they actually serve to block meaningful action. Market-based schemes that place market values on nature, reforestation schemes with monoculture plantations, so-called nature-based solutions and large-scale bioenergy are more examples of failing approaches. Led by a misogynist and until recently climate-denying presidency, COP 26 is a vivid example of how this narrative is being pushed onto the global climate agenda disguised as truly transformative climate action.
Looking at these climate narratives and strategies through a gender justice lens lets us see how they are born of existing colonial and patriarchal mindsets that only perpetuate the root causes of the crisis they are supposed to tackle. In doing so, they fail to deal with the uneven distribution of access to and control over resources experienced by frontline communities on the basis of gender, class, race, caste, age and ability, amongst others.
It is widely acknowledged through a growing body of evidence that women, especially Indigenous and rural women, are more vulnerable to climate change and deforestation and that addressing gender inequality is central to effective climate action. Despite this, gender-blindness is still alarmingly common, even in supposedly flagship national climate policies. For example, only 64 of 190 national climate commitments included a reference to women or gender.
Therefore, it is not surprising that rural women’s significant economic contribution through their unpaid care and domestic work continues to be ignored by policymakers and how this burden is exacerbated by climate policies that promote the strict protection of forests and private plantations. Restricting access to forests forces women and girls to travel further and spend more time collecting water, food, medicine and fuelwood for their households, at greater personal risk.
Rural women’s significant economic contribution through their unpaid care and domestic work continues to be ignored by policymakers.
While progress has been made, there is still a long way to go in terms of recognizing women as the powerful agents of change that they are and incorporating gender justice into mainstream climate decision-making.
For example, in the case of Indigenous Dhanwar women in India, their traditional knowledge and practices play a key role in conserving forests—yet their way of life is threatened by climate and forest policies that are trying to replace their diverse forests with monoculture plantations.
In Paraguay, a woman leader of the Qom Indigenous group quoted in the report described the impacts of monoculture tree plantations invading her territory through government collusion with corporations:
“The countryside needs water; it doesn’t need eucalyptus. COVID-19 isn’t going to kill us, the corporations will. We, the people, have a right to decide.”
As a beacon of hope in the bleak array of climate efforts, women-led struggles are happening everywhere. Their collective action to care for their communities and conserve the forests they depend on is an act of resistance that is indispensable to solving the climate crisis and safeguarding human rights. In fact, their grassroots organizing efforts to ensure forests benefit all and stop further deforestation is actually achieving the emissions reduction levels that so many top-down climate policies are failing to reach.
Mainstreaming gender justice into policymaking must go further than simply being responsive to the needs of women and girls. It must be transformative—and this means ensuring women’s rights to information, training, representation, governance and access to resources, in addition to respecting their basic human rights. Without women, especially those from the communities most affected by climate change, climate justice will not go far.