Climate Equality: Women on the Front Lines

The full extent of the devastation brought by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake won't be known for some time. The Mugu villages are at least two-days walk from the nearest town -- and that's when roads are clear and weather fine.
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You won't find many climate deniers in the remote mountainous villages of Nepal where melting glaciers and unpredictable rain has made subsistence living increasingly precarious. You won't find climate deniers amongst the Carteret Islanders (in Papua New Guinea) who became environmental refugees where the rising tides and increasing storm surges swallowed their homes. Nor will you find climate deniers amongst the Sundarban in Bangladesh, where rising sea water makes it impossible to grow food in the saline soils. Nor are the survivors of frequent storm surges and typhoons in the Philippines and Vietnam likely to deny climate change.

For these communities, and for much of the world, the question is not whether climate change is happening: it's whether it's possible to survive it.

Perversely, communities that have contributed almost nothing to global emissions are those most affected and threatened by climate change. The USA, for example, emits 176 times more carbon per person than Nepal.

Women in these communities are used to having the interests of the powerful put ahead of their right to exist. They are accustomed to having men speak for them. Yet they are also used to acting collectively. A regional programme using Feminist Participatory Action Research (FPAR), is empowering women from some of the most affected communities to increase their collective power and influence to shape climate and development policies.

Displaced women from the Carteret Islands living in resettlement camps in war-ravaged Bougainville are actively shaping the policies of the local government to address the realities of climate change. Facing high levels of food insecurity and illness as well as infant and maternal mortality, the women are pushing for the implementation of an early-warning system for environmental disasters and a facility to serve as a medical center and a transit house to accommodate the steady influx of displaced Carteret Islanders.

Women of coastal and highland communities of Central Vietnam have organized to demand recognition for the important position they hold in the fight against climate change. Dependent primarily on rice and aquaculture, their livelihoods are threatened by high tides, sea-water intrusion, sea-bank erosion, typhoons, and water pollution. Acting for their very survival, they have facilitated workshops, disaster drills, and first-aid classes to improve the capacities and resilience of women in the face of climate change. Importantly, their efforts have led to the appointment of more than 60 local women to 12 of the historically male-only Village Rapid Response Teams.

In the most remote and poorest villages of Nepal, the Mugal Indigenous Women's Uplift Institute is utilizing traditional knowledge to adapt farming practices to warmer temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns. Leafy greens, previously unable to grow in the cold climate of Mugu, now replace the potatoes unable to grow in warmer temperatures. Traditional rock walls are now used to minimize damage caused by landslides resulting from frequent heavy rains. Grains and potatoes are now stored in wooden boxes buried and sealed with mud to protect the food staples that used to be protected in pits buried into the now-scarce snow.

The Mugal women have become a prominent force in addressing climate change, recently organizing the first engagement between district government offices and indigenous women from the villages. They are now working with the Village Coordination Councils to encourage the integration of traditional knowledge in climate-related measures. They are also advocating for the construction of a new drinking-water facility as well as a canal to bring freshwater to operate a watermill recently built to replace those destroyed by landslides.

The importance of building women's collective resilience and organizing power is tragically evident this week. The full extent of the devastation brought by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake won't be known for some time. The Mugu villages are at least two-days walk from the nearest town -- and that's when roads are clear and weather fine. While the village is not at the epi-center of the quake, villages like theirs have no choice but to deal with devastation themselves. When landslides have hit their villages in the past, they haven't even been recorded. And it is Nepalese women who will continue re-building their communities and dealing with the collective loss and grief long after the media and aid agencies have gone. We should consider channeling funds to local women's organizations to create sustainable, locally driven recovery.

In the remote villages bordering the Sundarban mangrove forests in the southwest corner of Bangladesh, campaigns by a local women's movement have led to remarkable progress in government action regarding climate change and its effects on the daily lives of indigenous communities. Local women's groups started a campaign to address isolation and land-grabbing, which perpetuates women's vulnerability to climate change.

Now, government officials in the region are engaging with local women's groups to design climate policies and programs. The Agriculture Extension Office is working with them to develop adaptation and alternative crop production processes. Women are now resorting to planting "hanging gardens" to grow vegetables in fertile soil. Government officials have even participated in awareness-creation programs led by the local women's movement. And, significantly, a leader of the movement was recently elected as a member of the Village Committee.

What works at the coalface of climate change is ensuring women have the capacity, voice and power to collectively shape climate and development policies.

But their work cannot mitigate the impact of climate change. Their work cannot force polluting countries and corporations to recognize their historical culpability for devastating women's lives and the planet. That work has to be done by the people in wealthy nations who recognize that our lives are now bound together. Women of Asia may be the "canary in the coalmine." If women in the Global South with their knowledge, their capacity to work collectively and their ability to live sustainably cannot survive, all of humanity is in real danger.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series on the environment. The series is putting a spotlight on initiatives and solutions that are actually making a difference -- whether in the battle against climate change, or tackling pollution or other environmental challenges. To see all the posts in the series, read here.

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