By Giulia Nicolini
Climate change, water scarcity, drought, global warming: just some of the daunting problems that keep environmentalists awake at night. But they are also feminist issues.
Environmental issues have always been, and are increasingly, also issues of human rights and social justice. There are clear links between climate change and migration or displacement, as well as food security and poverty. This is the basis of the ‘climate justice’ movement, which frames climate change as a political and ethical problem rooted in a system that is rife with inequality. Its proponents call for an approach to curbing climate change which also tackles the social inequalities underlying its uneven impacts, both within societies and across the world. This includes gender inequalities, which affect how climate change impinges differently on the lives of men and women. As Mara Alejandra Rodriguez Acha, a Peruvian activist, has argued:
‘The changing climate…further increases disparities, as its impacts hit vulnerable populations – who have done the least to contribute to this crisis – the hardest. And among those at the frontlines of climate impacts are the bodies, lives and livelihoods of women around the world — particularly rural and indigenous women.’
As Acha has articulated, the intersection of gender, as well as ethnic, racial and global social inequalities, makes climate change a feminist issue.
Particularly in the Global South, women are more vulnerable to the long- and short-term impacts of disasters and environmental change. In large part this is due to the fact that women make up an estimated 70 per cent of the global population living in poverty, and in many regions in the developing world, the majority of the female labour force derives its income from agriculture. Globally, women make up 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force, but in some countries this figure is as high as 70 per cent. Climate change poses an immediate risk to the cultivation and harvest of crops, which represent both a source of income and food for these women.
Women face social and economic disadvantages which are exacerbated during times of environmental crisis and disaster. For example, in regions where periods of drought are becoming longer and more extreme, girls and women are forced to spend increasing amounts of time collecting water, traveling farther as water sources become depleted. This leaves less and less time for girls and women to engage in educational or economic activities outside the home, thus cementing their economic dependence on men, and their confinement to the domestic sphere. Social norms also act as barriers to women’s options for adaptation. Discrimination in accessing resources such as land or technologies, skills and information affects women’s ability to adapt to long-term impacts, and to increase their resilience in the face of changing weather conditions.
It is clear that environmental issues are a cause for feminist concern. But the other side of the coin is that feminists can also bring a much needed gender-aware perspective to the fight against climate change. There is an urgent need to incorporate considerations of gender into mitigation and adaptation planning around climate change. The IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) has shown that there are differences in how men and women perceive climate change. This can affect the strategies which women choose in adapting to climate change, as well as the kinds of information they rely on to adopt these strategies. Furthermore, the IFPRI found that local, national and international stakeholders and organisations do not take gender into account when researching, designing and implementing adaptation programs. They suggest that ‘not enough agricultural research and development efforts have focused on options that meet women's specific needs and situations.’ Therefore, environmental issues are feminist issues also to the extent that feminists are well placed to shed light on the intersections of gender with strategies for conservation, mitigation and adaptation to climate change.
One movement which has emerged from the alignment of feminist and environmental causes is ecofeminism. Mary Mellor, Emeritus Professor at Northumbria University, has written extensively about feminism, economics and ecology, and describes the movement as one which ‘sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women.’ An ecofeminist, or even better, an intersectional ecofeminist perspective, can be a useful academic approach for examining how environmental degradation affects communities and socio-economic groups differently depending on their gender and race. In September 2016, members of the Black Lives Matters group in the UK sought to highlight that ‘climate crisis is a racist crisis’, by shutting down airports in London and other cities across the country in a show of protest.
So, how might ecofeminism actually help fight climate change and the destruction of the environment? Some believe that ecofeminists can contribute by eradicating forms of oppression which are upheld through domination – such as patriarchy, racism, and rampant industrialisation. By encouraging healthier attitudes towards people and planet, ecofeminists could help others to foster greater respect for the environment and the millions of inhabitants we share it with. In tandem with this, ecofeminists have also sought to affirm the value of non-masculine ethics, such as care, and to bring them into the mainstream of environmental practices.
Similar efforts to incorporate forms of knowledge other than the established form of western, rational science, into the debate on climate change mitigation and adaptation, are being made across other disciplines and by other ethnic, social and political groups. For example, UN climate talks now include panels and conferences on indigenous knowledge (even though the livelihoods of indigenous people are still threatened on a daily basis around the world). The voices of the powerless, the marginalised, and the oppressed, must be heard in the fight against climate change. They must be included in discussions and debates around solutions, in high-level UN panels as much as at the local level. And their experiences, their bodies and their lives must be taken into account and valued. Only then can we truly hope to overcome the shared environmental challenges that lie ahead.
Read more from Giulia Nicolini
(Photo creator_ Jassy Watson, https://feminismandreligion.com/2015/01/02/painting-for-the-earth-by-jassy-watson/)