“We are either going to have a future where women lead the way to make peace with the Earth or we are not going to have a human future at all.” This quote from climate activist Vanada Shiva is, at its core, the embodiment of ecofeminism–– a philosophical and political movement that combines ecological concerns with feminist ones, both of which result from a patriarchical society.
Feminism has become increasingly substantial within the climate crisis for one reason: climate change disproportionately affects women more than men. For example, after crises influenced by climate change, there is an upsurge in violent crime against women and in numbers of impoverished women. The disparities women face are so great that the Paris Climate Agreement has acknowledged that signatory parties must “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on the empowerment of women” when drafting legislation in relation to the environment. It is because of these imbalances that women face that they, as Shiva argues, should be the ones to develop policies and lead the environmentalist movement.
Author of All We Can Save and climate activist Katharine K. Wilkinson said, “The climate crisis is not gender-equal or gender-neutral.” On average, men contribute 16% more in emissions and emit 18% more greenhouse gases than women, but the negative effects of climate change are skewed toward women. For instance, on March 8, 2019, there was massive flooding in Malawi, which was intensified by climate change. Due to rising temperatures and increased atmospheric moisture, the severity and frequency of these floods have grown. Along with the destruction of villages, another effect of climate change followed: an escalation of sexual violence towards women. During times of environmental disaster, many people are sent to live in camps. At these camps there is no shelter and little food, forcing many women into prostitution to provide for their families. This expectation that women provide food and shelter, which stems from traditional ideas, exemplifies how the inequality women face causes the faults imposed on them.
There were similar effects during the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. The tragedy was caused by global warming, which contributes to a rise in sea levels due to glacial melting and thermal expansion. According to a survey by Oxfam, four times as many women as men were killed in the tsunami-affected areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India. It was found that cultural differences in these countries between men and women were a significant factor in this disproportionate death toll. Women traditionally hold responsibility for their children and other relatives, and as such, many women stayed behind to look for and attempt to save family members, making them more vulnerable to the tsunami. After the tsunami, similar to the Malawi flooding, people were moved to camps where women were subjected to verbal and physical harassment by men and an increased risk of being sexually abused.
What solves the prevalent challenges women face due to environmental hardship? Frustratingly, the capacity of women to take part in climate activism is hampered, mainly because of gender inequalities. Therefore, promoting gender equality is key to assiting in the solution of the climate crisis as well as preventing more poverty, sexual violence, and inhibition of basic human rights that climate change has caused and will continue to cause. Thus, we look toward ecofeminism.
The importance of women in the environmental movement can be explained by experiential learning, which shows that people most affected by something are more likely to react to it. Therefore, as the Paris Climate Agreement noted, the empowerment of women is crucial in addressing the climate crisis, for the current patriarchal system we live in cannot represent those most affected women, who have contributed significantly less to the problem.
Exemplifying the power of women against the climate crisis is the Green Belt Movement. This movement, founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai in 1977, responded to the needs of rural Kenyan women. In her book Speak Truth to Power, Maathai explains that the positions women hold in African culture prompts their investment in the effects of climate change:
“Throughout Africa (as in much of the world) women hold primary responsibility for tilling the fields, deciding what to plant, nurturing the crops, and harvesting the food. They are the first to become aware of environmental damage that harms agricultural production: if the well goes dry, they are the ones concerned about finding new sources of water and those who must walk long distances to fetch it. As mothers, they notice when the food they feed their family is tainted with pollutants or impurities: they can see it in the tears of their children and hear it in their babies’ cries.”
Women in rural Kenya recognized the environmental deterioration that was occurring in their homeland, witnessing streams drying up, suffering a less secure food supply, and struggling with a lack of firewood for fuel and fencing. The Green Belt introduced these women to sustainable practices that would allow them to remedy the effects of climate change. One of these adaptations was the planting of trees, which was encouraged by the National Council of Women. Planting trees empowered women in the community, instilling a sense of control over their situation, and it allowed them to have a positive impact on their local environment. The women developed their own technologies for planting trees; an example Maathai witnessed was “a woman cultivating a field with a small container of water. But she was cultivating weeds! She had learned that among these weeds were also tree seedlings, and that she could pick the seedlings and put them in a container. In the evening, she went home with several hundred seedling trees!”
The solutions to the environmental problems we face should be curated by women. Movements such as the Green Belt are becoming increasingly crucial as climate change continues to affect our planet and livelihoods. Therefore, the empowerment these movements garner is essential. The direct impact women face encourages action. Calling attention to the inequalities women face and how these inequalities are amplified by climate change is the first step in mitigating the climate crisis. Including women in the climate movement has a cascading effect of encouraging everyone to make an impact. As Maathai described: “We started by commissioning women. Then the men joined in because they saw that the women were doing some very positive work.”
Paris Agreement Text English – UNFCCC. unfccc.int/sites/default/files/english_paris_agreement.pdf.
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March 18, 2021 Nicole Greenfield. “What Is Climate Feminism?” NRDC, 22 Sept. 2021, www.nrdc.org/stories/what-climate-feminism.
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Godin, Mélissa, and William Martin. “Floods in Malawi Fuel Sexual Violence and HIV Infections.” Time, Time, 29 Mar. 2019, time.com/5559499/floods-malawi-women-violence-hiv/.
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www.cstraight.com, Cstraight Media -. “Key Speeches & Articles.” Speak Truth to Power | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/key-speeches-and-articles/speak-truth-to-power.
“Women Rising for the Earth.” Earth Island Journal, www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/magazine/entry/women-rising-for-the-earth/#:~:text=Vandana%20Shiva%20has%20said%3A%20%E2%80%9CWe,by%20climate%20change%20and%20environmental.