Women’s activism in the time of climate and other emergencies

We are facing a climate emergency, a possible economic recession, and now a global pandemic that will test the limits of our health systems and expose the short-sightedness of our governments and their skewed priorities. But an affirming message in the commemoration of International Women’s Day earlier this month was the common recognition that women, despite our diversity, have common challenges that unite our movements and collectives.

If we’ve learnt anything from the climate emergency, it’s that women are some of the most affected globally but their movements are some of the most effective. When it comes to fighting a global health crisis, we need to learn from these movements.

Women’s movements and right-wing populism

We are just a few months into the year and there have already been devastating climate-related catastrophes in various parts of the world – the worst-ever bushfires in Australia, floods in Indonesia and Dubai, volcanic eruptions in Guatemala, Japan and the Philippines, melting of Himalayan glaciers, and storms in several countries. Due to continuing inequality, climate change impacts women more. At the same time the world has also seen women playing lead roles in climate action. This year’s International Women’s Day celebrations centred on the climate emergency to show how women lead their communities in addressing grassroots impacts of climate change and their struggle against environmentally destructive mega-projects.

This year’s biggest International Women’s Day march was seen in Chile, where more than a million women protested across the country for women’s rights and against state repression. Women and feminists have been on the frontlines of the protests in Chile, as they are on the frontlines of the climate justice movement. There were actions and events all over the world, some were peaceful, some met by heavy police force.

In September this year the global community will assess the progress made for women’s rights during the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action – the landmark global agenda that came out of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. It the most comprehensive agenda for gender equality ever agreed. The assessment will feature how women’s voices shape decisions to address the climate emergency, conflict and the alarming rise of exclusionary politics, which all threaten future progress towards gender equality.

It is saddening though that many global movement initiatives from the left have weakened over the last decade. The gains from the World Social Forum, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the pink tide in Latin America that put in place reformist governments are now more and more being reversed by right-wing populist leaders’ appropriation of the grievances and even language of the left. Neoliberalism, instead of collapsing has become entrenched and militarism has increased. The dispossessed and displaced communities in the global south generated the refugees and migrants who are trying to flee the wreckage to have a chance to rebuild their lives.

In the midst of the current crises how do we mobilise, organise and build movements to make sure that this time around, it is society that will be saved and not the system? How do we fight the normalisation of violence against migrants in India and southern Europe or against those who are simply questioning their governments’ incapacity to deal with the coronavirus crisis? Putting women and feminist struggles at the centre of our response might be one part of the puzzle in meeting the crises we face with a connected struggle.

Feminism as liberation struggle

The role of feminism in the current climate and health emergencies calls for new thinking and ways of organising. It also goes beyond challenging patriarchal power. As a liberation struggle, it is a part of the larger task of eradicating domination in all its forms: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, and so much more. Those who have long been thinking, writing about and building women’s’ movements for systemic alternatives know from practice that it will be impossible to get rid of these dominations while the systems that produce them remain intact.

Most organised grassroots women do not call themselves feminists. In Asia and Africa, they are mostly socio-economic environmental activists. However, the thinking and discussions they produce enrich eco-feminism, which emphasises a systematic perspective. Regional feminist networks like WoMin in Africa see their work as a political project about organising women to challenge the power structure. Frontline anti-mining movements in the global south and eco-feminist movements have been arguing for decades for a transition to a post-extractivist model of development. Some also adhere to the rights of nature. The vision is of a post-extractivist, low carbon, equitable and eco-feminist society.

Climate change is both an ecological and social crisis

Climate change is both an ecological and social crisis. It is about humans’ skewed relationship with nature and the relationship between humans. Capitalism is incompatible with a sustainable planet and feminism’s crucial role in climate justice is grounded in the recognition that to ‘free’ women means deep, transformative change because of the way patriarchy and capitalism are intertwined. 

The Environmental Justice Atlas has mapped around 3,000 environmental conflicts but that figure is just the tip of the iceberg. Even a quick read about those conflicts will make anyone see that the power of multinational corporations has been growing in the last few decades. But what is more astonishing to know is how the power of multinational resistance movements has also incrementally increased over the years. Many of these movements are not just about saving their own community or their resources. They also exist to change society at a very fundamental level. And many are women-led.

New coalitions of women are mobilising and building movements across class to make governments adopt feminist budgets, win policy demands with other groups to equalise care burdens by remunicipalisation of public resources and socialising them. The nanas are still at it and working against nuclear power or fracking.

In the Philippines, the focus of the month-long series of women’s events, which connects gender and climate justice are on how to take back and expand political spaces. The diminished democratic space, spate of drug-related killings, targeting of women leading the opposition against President Rodrigo Duterte and most importantly the rolling back of the hard-fought gains from decades-long work of ousting the Marcos dictatorship, all call for a new politics of transformation. Feminist ideas are at the heart of the discussions.

Coronavirus is a women’s issue

Just in the last few weeks, many European countries have enforced a country-wide lockdown, with the UK finally doing so this week. Governments around the world are struggling to cope as people’s anxiety heightens over the global pandemic. The virus has caused airlines and factories to shut down, affecting global supply chains. According to the International Energy Agency, world oil demand is expected to fall this year for the first time since 2009. Experts predict that the economic impacts could be far worse than the 2008 economic crisis. The widespread prediction of the world economy going into sudden recession gets increasingly real every day.

Although coronavirus impacts both men and women, there are specific impacts on women. According to the World Health Organisation, 70% of workers in the health and social sector are women.  The closure of schools to control COVID-19 transmission in China, Hong Kong, Italy, South Korea, and beyond might have a differential effect on women, who provide most of the informal care within families, with the consequence of limiting their work and economic opportunities.

We are facing a difficult time ahead. Our movement needs to be resilient and come together to collectively fight the global emergencies we’re experiencing. It will require political projects and organising of women to challenge the power structures that continue to push inequality on us all. Women’s lives will be at the centre of the struggle and so must our feminism be. 

This is an updated version of a speech given at the Women and the Climate Emergency discussion in Brighton on International Women's Day.


Photo: International Women's Day protest in Melbourne, Australia in 2019. Credit: Friends of the Earth International

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