IN AUGUST 2016, when the resistance against the Dakota Access pipeline was well underway, I had the fortune to meet with Phyllis Young, former councilwoman for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and one of the lead organizers of the Oceti Sakowin camp — the largest mass-gathering of Native American nations in the US in more than a century. Young spoke to me about the strength of Indigenous women who, she made clear, were the backbone of the Standing Rock movement:
“I am ‘Woman Who Stands by The Water’ and my other name is ‘Woman Who Loves the Water.’ I was given those names by my people because it’s been my life struggle to protect the water,” she told me. “I grew up on this river; I was removed and displaced when I was 10 years old . . . I came back here and I live on the river and I am telling the Army Corps, ‘You’ll never displace me again. You’ll never put me somewhere where I don’t belong . . . We have been on a campaign for life, and it is our life struggle to maintain this river where we have lived all of our lives, under international principles of treaty that govern our relationship with the United States.”
Young is one of the many women I’ve met from across the world who have a long history of rising up to protect and defend forests, water, seeds, land, future generations, and now, our climate. I’m always deeply moved when I hear the stories of these courageous women who are speaking out and taking action, aware of the inextricable connection between social and environmental injustices — and the urgent need to protect our communities and children.
As Indian physicist and Earth advocate, Dr. Vandana Shiva has said: “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.” Studies around the world support this claim, demonstrating that while women are the most adversely impacted by climate change and environmental degradation, they are also indispensable actors and leaders of many of the effective responses to the greatest crises of our times.
From the heart of the ongoing Standing Rock movement to struggles to protect the Boreal, Amazon, and Congo Basin forests, and hundreds of places in between, women stand on the frontlines of global efforts to defend the land and heal our world. In every sector from renewable energy initiatives and fossil fuel divestment campaigns, to agroecology and urban sustainability projects — women are at the helm, working to change humanity’s current destructive trajectory.
Yet, our voices often go unheard, even though we are speaking and acting with great strength and leadership. This norm is not surprising given gender discrimination, and the systemic violations of women’s human rights that occur in various manners and magnitudes around the world, and that also manifests in women being disproportionately impacted by climate change.
Of course, not all iterations of womanhood are the same and each woman’s experience of adversity or discrimination tied to her gender is also shaped by her location, race, class, sexual orientation, citizenship status, culture, religious beliefs, and other factors.
But research shows that 80 percent of global climate refugees are women, a grim indicator of the fact that the poor are especially impacted by the climate change, and women make up the majority of severely impoverished peoples worldwide.
In many Indigenous and other frontline communities, sexual violence against women is an additional grave threat perpetuated by Earth-polluting fossil fuel and mining industries. In the US, for example, “man camps”— expansive trailer units sometimes housing thousands of industry workers in oil-and-gas drilling regions — have resulted in skyrocketing rates of rape and abuse of local women, with Indigenous women and girls inordinately targeted.
Outside the US, too, women land defenders are increasingly being criminalized, attacked, and murdered. Global Witness reports that in 2017, more than 185 land defenders and environmental activists were killed, 40 percent of whom were Indigenous. Women defenders face persecution like their male colleagues, as well as additional forms of mistreatment, including intimidation, defamation, sexual violence, and personal attacks against their children and families. The international community became more aware of this situation in 2016 after the assassination of beloved Honduran Indigenous leader, Berta Cáceres, who was murdered for leading a campaign against the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River in her people’s territory.
This pattern of abuse reinforces, all over again, the inseparable link between violence against women and violence perpetrated against the Earth through exploitation and extractivism. It exposes the egregious abuses that result from unchecked patriarchal societies, colonization, racism, and capitalism — all of which are based upon the same systems and ideologies that promote power over — and exploitation of — women, people of color, Indigenous peoples, and the land.
Our voices often go unheard, even though we are speaking and acting with great strength and leadership.
As we look at the connections, it is clear that if we are to move towards justice and healing, we need to address these systems of oppression in an intersectional manner. We need new worldviews and social constructs of gender and racial equity; respect for human and Indigenous rights; and governance systems that respect the natural laws of Mother Earth. And it is also acutely clear that women are the ones who are going to make this new world possible.
As my colleagues and I have witnessed consistently, when women are given space to grow their power and agency, there are critical benefits to communities and societies at a systems level — from expansion of sustainable economies, to stabilization of populations, to thriving local ecosystems.
In many countries, women vote more often than men, and when elected to public office, lead on environmental and social legislation. A survey of 130 countries found that nations with larger numbers of female legislators are more likely to ratify international environmental treaties. In a recent victory for the climate movement, for example, New Zealand’s new prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has banned all new offshore oil exploration as part of plans to transition the country to a carbon-neutral economy.
In the global South, where women are in charge of 40 to 80 percent of household food production, they are uniquely positioned to chart a more sustainable course through their daily work. Women also lead in forest conservation initiatives worldwide. A powerful illustration of this comes from the long-standing tradition of women forest protectors in India — from the Chipko Andolan, a nonviolent movement led by rural women in northern India in the 1970s to protect trees from government logging projects, to the women of Ghunduribadi in the state of Odisha today, who patrol their ancestral forests daily to protect them from intruders and illegal loggers.
Globally, women are also discovering they can be powerful agents of social change in their homes and communities via the lifestyle and consumption choices they make. In the United States, 70 to 80 percent of all consumer purchases are decided by women, a force that can and must be leveraged for a successful and just transition to a future based on sustainable local economies, and clean, democratized, and decentralized renewable energy.
Importantly, historically marginalized women are leading the way. After Hurricane Katrina many Black women, who were disproportionately impacted by the disaster, became visible as powerful leaders generating desperately needed awareness and activism concerning the links between environmental and climate justice, racism, health, and economic disparity.
At this crucial juncture in time, it is imperative not only to broadly lift up women’s voices and leadership, but to very specifically center the voices of women from the most impacted communities: Indigenous women, women of color, and women from low income communities and global South countries. These women and their communities have a long history of resistance and knowledge of the land and can offer solutions and effective responses to climate change and environmental crises. Uplifting and adhering to their leadership is not only morally right, but essential to the health of people and planet.
That is why it is heartening to see women coming together across struggles, borders, and cultures. Women are connecting the dots between climate justice, gender justice, Indigenous rights, racial justice, workers’ rights, and rights of nature — a coming together that is essential to truly challenge governments that are failing in many arenas, including catering to the fossil fuel industry, and falling far short or disregarding commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement.
Women are coming together to fight for climate justice knowing that our love and dedication to life is more powerful than the corruption and greed of predator capitalism and institutionalized patriarchy and racism, which are themselves some of the deepest roots of our perilous global predicament.
In our efforts, there is also a special element that women are bringing to our advocacy, which is needed in these trying times and should in no way be devalued or dismissed — and that is emotional and spiritual intelligence.
That day at the Oceti Sakowin camp back in 2016, Phyllis Young told me: “We really believe that the age of man is over, and that women have to step up and acknowledge their circular power. There is more spirituality exuded from that energy. We can afford to be more spiritual in the struggle that we continue to embark on, and that’s for the water, because we represent water, and all living things are born in water. Babies, human beings know how to breathe and swim, before they come to this world. Those are miracles of life.”
Indeed, women have been told too often that their personal, emotional, or spiritual statements are too “soft” or inappropriate for inclusion in analysis of pressing social and ecological issues. Yet in fact, women sharing from their hearts and brilliant minds is precisely what is often missing from the sterile and stifling processes of most policy forums and decision-making institutions. Women speaking their full truths in public spaces, and places of established “power,” is central to the success of our collective struggles for a healthy future.
May Phyllis Young’s words and the strength, courage and dedication of other women leaders like her inspire and activate us. This is the time of women rising for the Earth, and we need to act now.
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