In honour of International Women’s Day, Katie Hodgetts
reflects on the female environmental activists that have inspired and empowered
her, contemplating not only their work, but their role in joining the dots
between gender inequality, the environment and wider systemic failings.
While International Women’s Day means many things for many different
women, for me the crux of it is: Empowered women, empower women. Today, we
focus more consciously on celebrating the social, economic, cultural and
political achievements of women, empowering other women to join the collective
global outcry to accelerate gender parity. But apart from achievements, the day
is also about recognising past and ongoing struggles, and paying homage to the
scores of anonymous toil and blood that have characterised this plight.
Furthermore, it is about recognising the continued struggle that women,
particularly BAME (black and minority ethnic) women, still face.
What does environmentalism have to do with gender
parity? In short, a lot. Both women and nature are subordinated by our
patriarchal capitalist system, because economic production is valued higher
than non-productive output that women have traditionally been assigned to, such
as strengthening community bonds, raising children, taking care of food and
Furthermore, for the developing world, a 2002 Oxfam report found that 70 % of the 1.3 billion people
in the developing world living below the threshold of poverty are women.
Climate change will hit the developing world hardest, hence women will bear the
brunt of this.
In a wider setting, it is this same logic that has
subordinated the Global South to the Global North, that has subordinated
Femininity to Masculinity. It is the same logic that has subordinated nature to
be pillaged and exploited, which has subordinated women. Violence against Earth
begets violence against women. Each dynamic is interrelated.
Each one of the following women has contributed to
joining these dots. More than that, their work has been deep-seated in passion
and integrity, and repeated to us that women are strong, and fearless and
Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace
Prize after founding the Green
Belt Movement. This
organisation cites its mission as ‘empowering communities, particularly women,
to conserve the environment and improve livelihoods’. What began as a humble
mission to plant trees for food blossomed into an organisation famed for
advocating human rights, good governance and peaceful democratic change through
environmental stewardship. Not guns, not violence, not colonization to increase
food yield, but stewardship of the land and speaking ‘truth to power’.
"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."
Vandana Shiva, philosopher, alter-globalisation figure,
eco-feminist, author, food sovereignty advocate, physicist, activist; the list
goes on. Debatably, she is most famed for her fight for the rights of female
farmers in India, opposing industrialised globalised agriculture. She advocates
traditional methods and strongly criticises international trade agreements that
pit people versus profit.
Her work on contemporary eco-feminism has held a
mirror to environmental degradation and injustice, reflecting back the worldview
that causes a culture of male domination, exploitation, and inequality for
women. The two are watered from the same tap, argues Shiva.
"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."
Naomi Klein, Canadian author and journalist, is one testament to
the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword. She has been a key figure in
creating dialogue about the inexplicable link between neoliberalism and climate
change, for example in her book This Changes Everything. In doing so,
Klein succeeded in cracking open the ‘nature’ shell that climate change
discussions were framed inside, exposing them to the other afflictions of
neoliberalism – patriarchy, race, and gender. To me, she politicised the polar
bear. "Climate change is the single greatest market failure",
argues Klein, linking environmental degradation and climate change to systemic
narrative of dominance, mastery and economic individualism.
March 2nd honoured Berta Cáceres,
who was murdered two years ago in her home. Berta, an eminent environmental and
indigenous rights activist, led her Lenca community against the construction of
a hydroelectric dam in Honduras. She was awarded the Goldman Environmental
Prize in 2015, but was robbed of this and her life due to the exploitation of
women and nature, overseen by a system of impunity. Berta’s death opened my
eyes to the role of corporate power within women and environmentalism. Women
like Berta are perilously standing up for their rights, to face repression and
violence, like the land they are trying to defend. A stark reminder that the
plight of women has been stained by blood, and a stark reminder that these
fatal struggles still remain. Honduras is one country of many that have
prioritised the development and profit of the sectors of mining, forestry,
agribusiness and fossil fuels, over people. Profits extracted at the price of
“I cannot freely walk on my territory or swim in the
sacred river and I am separated from my children because of the threats. I
cannot live in peace, I am always thinking about being killed or kidnapped. But
I refuse to go into exile. I am a human rights fighter and I will not give up
Together each of these women have pushed the frontiers
of what I understood to be ‘environmentalism’. But this is only four examples
of an incredible array of environmental defenders that identify as women. Many
of these do not have the opportunity to enter mainstream media, and their
struggles will remain unknown. Forgotten in history seem to be the lives of
women of colour. So to women known and unknown, who have risen up in a system
that works against them, I raise a glass.