It is now widely recognized that the poor are being hit first and worst by the food shortages, droughts, floods and disease associated with climate change. However, fewer acknowledge that women and girls make up six out of ten of the poorest people worldwide.
While poor, rural and Indigenous women are especially vulnerable to climate change, they are more than victims: they are sources of solutions. In nearly every society, women are responsible for securing food, water, and - particularly in the Global South - household fuel and medicinal plants. These resources depend on the stability of the climate, placing women at the heart of the economy and the environment the world over.
As stewards of traditional environmental, technical and cultural knowledge, grassroots women are creating sustainable climate change adaptation practices in communities around the world, from seed banks to preserve biodiversity to rainwater harvesting systems to fight drought. They are also spearheading mitigation strategies: as Lina Veneklasen wrote last week Indigenous women have made themselves the first line of defence of their resource-rich territories, leading civil disobedience campaigns to block carbon-polluting extractive industries. And yet, all these women’s expertise is squandered by programming that treats women in communities as aid recipients, or project targets, rather than leaders and innovators.
A vital tool: the international human rights framework
To ensure that environmental policies are informed by women’s expertise and imbued with a gender perspective, advocacy by the climate justice movement needs to operate at all levels - from local to global. The international human rights framework, an interlocking system of treaties and adjudicating institutions, already provides a blueprint for building the “scaffolding” needed to create policy coherence at all these levels.
Human rights instruments - which in many countries have the force of law superseding national policies - have clear applications to advance a climate justice agenda. For instance, the major documents of the human rights framework codify rights to life, food, water, health, development and self-determination. Governments are obligated to respect, protect and fulfil these rights, a responsibility which now requires controlling climate change. Moreover, human rights demand that climate change be addressed in ways that uphold people's equitable access to life-sustaining resources and ensure their meaningful voice in policymaking.
Perhaps the greatest value of human rights instruments is that they spell out commitments that governments have already made. As we race the clock to prevent the worst impacts of runaway climate change, this pre-existing policy architecture is a critical asset. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, as US environmental advocates attempted to do during the first Obama Administration in pressing for comprehensive new climate legislation rather than relying on the already proven Clean Air Act of 1970. Similarly, decades of established international human rights policy and practice outline commitments that governments are obligated to fulfil and that can guide the creation of policies rooted in climate justice.
Furthermore, the established processes of the international human rights framework have created key spaces for civil society and government exchanges. The United Nations and other international institutions regularly convene human rights committees and conferences that allow for debates that further advance and refine our expression of human rights, while allowing advocates to spotlight violations and hold governments accountable to their obligations. Bringing the climate justice agenda to these arenas is a strategy both for leveraging pre-existing rights in support of just climate solutions, and for winning recognition of climate stability itself as a legally binding human right.
Learning from allies
The global women’s human rights movement has pioneered the use of UN human rights spaces to advance rights protections for women. From the negotiation and ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to the growing recognition of domestic violence as a grave violation, local and global women’s activists have successfully maneuvered “insider” and “outsider” strategies to achieve our aims, bringing together grassroots organisers, mainstream ngos, and government representatives at key moments to realise new advances.
The international Indigenous movement offers another successful model for expanding the conventional understanding and application of human rights. Indigenous lands contain some of the world’s last untapped fossil fuel and carbon sink reserves. As Indigenous Peoples have struggled to defend their right to self-determination, they have acted as stewards of ecosystems, advancing the sustainable practices we all need. In so doing, they have also engaged with the international human rights system, advancing a vision of their collective rights that challenges and augments the liberal conception of individual human rights.
In particular, Indigenous women have foregrounded the intersection of their identities as Indigenous and as women in their advocacy for their human rights as individuals and as a collective. For instance, they have denounced toxic dumping on Indigenous lands as not just a violation of the individual right to health but also as an assault on the collectively-owned territories of Indigenous Peoples.
Through these efforts, the global women’s and Indigenous movements have enacted significant shifts within the contested space of the human rights framework. Women’s advocacy overcame the barrier that relegated violence against women to the private sphere, making this violation a matter for public discussion and government action. Indigenous organizing opened the space for a more complex understanding of human rights that recognizes collective identities. The lesson is that human rights can be expanded to address demands emerging from social movements, but only if governments can be held accountable.
The women’s rights and Indigenous movements achieved their victories by correcting the primary deficiency of the human rights framework: namely, that it has no enforcement mechanism. Governments, while obligated under international law to uphold ratified human rights agreements, are rarely held accountable and typically encounter few consequences for their failures.
The lesson of successful social movements is that an empowered civil society is itself an enforcement mechanism of human rights. It is this realization that transforms the human rights system from a legalistic framework into a powerful tool for social change. The climate justice movement is well positioned to make use of this tool, and women - especially Indigenous women - are well positioned to lead.