At a United Nations breakfast event in New York City in September 2009, four women – a peasant farmer, a former hairdresser, a journalist, and a social administration expert – came together with former heads of state and Nobel Prize winners to speak about the daily effects of climate change on their lives and on their communities.
The guests at the UN Summit on Climate Change were awed by the power of these women’s tales. Many lingered in the room for over an hour after the event to learn more about the realities of climate change.
Former Irish President Mary Robinson, chair of the meeting, summed up the power of these women’s narratives: “When we focus on the human dimension of climate change, we see the effects of the problem differently and we then approach the solutions differently. Giving voice to the experiences of these women, allowing them to bear witness to their experiences, can influence policy outcomes and instruments of adaptation.”
Inspired by the sense of possibility created on that September morning, Ulamila Kurai Wragg of Rarotonga, Cook islands, Ursula Rakova from the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, Constance Okollet of Uganda, and Sharon Hanshaw of Biloxi, Mississippi set out to take their stories around the globe. Their goal: to connect the dots between local and global climate change-related impacts and, ultimately, to wield women’s time-honored approach of kitchen-table activism as a catalyst toward a sustainable future.
Thus was born the Earth Island Project, Climate Wise Women.
At first glance they may seem an unlikely quartet. Wragg is a former journalist-activist and now a government climate negotiator. Rakova is a social administration expert and leader of her island’s climate refugees. Okollet is a farmer who organizes women around issues of agriculture, community health, and education. Hanshaw became a community leader after her home and her beauty salon were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. While connected by the broad issues of climate change and sustainable development, each woman faced different challenges – whether it was sea-level rise, extreme weather events, famine, health crises, poverty, or natural resource despoliation. In New York they found a common voice. As Wragg wrote in the Huffington Post: “New York taught me that to be seen is to be heard.”
During the past two and a half years the Climate Wise Women have spoken at universities and international conferences, and at UN climate change conferences in Denmark, Cancún, and Durban. They have received global recognition for highlighting the urgency of grassroots women’s leadership on climate change.
As a pile of reports have reiterated, it is women, especially in poorer nations, who bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. Yet while there are countless stories of women around the world who find commonsense strategies for improving the lives of their families and their communities, it is rare to hear first-person accounts from these women or see them in positions of leadership. The Climate Wise Women intends to make sure these women are heard and seen on international platforms.
In June, Wragg, Okollet, Hanshaw, and a new Climate Wise Woman, Ngozi Onuzo, a geologist from Nigeria, traveled to Rio to speak about climate adaptation and mitigation at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.
“Green space, and women’s equality – they go hand in hand. We know it; now we want our leaders and negotiators to know it. We are leaders too; we deserve a legitimate place at the decision-making table,” Hanshaw said at the People’s Summit, the Rio+20 counter-conference organized by civil society groups in Flamengo Park.
Okollet addressed the concerns of family farmers. “Climate change is gambling with agriculture, our main source of food and income, and causing spread of diseases like cholera and malaria,” she said.
Despite the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to demonstrate women’s leadership, the results of the Rio+20 were dismal – and women fared particularly badly. The official Rio+20 declaration, titled “The Future We Want,” omitted language on the reproductive rights of half of the world’s population.
The Climate Wise Women left Rio committed to continue sharpening their influence and finding new venues for their message of women’s empowerment as an essential pillar for global sustainability. As Wragg said at the People’s Summit: “There are many like me with unheard voices. Their views are important to how we govern and treat our natural resources.”
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