Strengthening gender justice in global environmental crises


To deal with the dramatic consequences of the global environmental and climate crises, international attention is also growing for civil society environmental movements and their louder feminist demands. The commitment of women's and feminist movements to environmental and climate issues is increasing.

Demonstration für Frauenrechte
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The commitment of feminist movements to environmental and climate issues is increasing.

In the midst of chilling news about the invasion of Ukraine, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its latest report. It plainly states that nearly half the world's population is vulnerable to the drastic effects of global warming. This high degree of vulnerability derives not only from the destruction of ecosystems, but also from socioeconomic inequalities and discrimination. The IPCC appeals directly to policy makers to strengthen women and all marginalised groups in order to use their knowledge in joint efforts to heighten resilience to climate change.

Despite the many environmental and social crises, this represents a positive development from a gender perspective. It means the stubborn gender blindness in climate debates is over. Women*[1] are no longer regarded as passive objects of ecological and climate change but also as active subjects. It has taken (too) many years for policy-making processes to consider the far greater effects of natural and climate disasters on women and other discriminated groups, especially in the global South. And it has taken yet more time for climate and environmental policy makers to even begin to grasp these groups' crucial contributions to addressing climate change and protection.

66th session of the CSW: Strengthening women's rights in the climate crisis

To prompt action on all levels of policy, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations (UN) is devoting this year's session to "achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes"[2]. Its final "draft agreed conclusions" calls for UN member states to commit to gender-responsive policies and climate funding. However, feminist environmental organisations say its measures take insufficient account of women's higher responsibility for care work in households and communities. Gender-specific norms make women and girls responsible for unpaid care work, and limit their rights and access to essential resources such as land ownership, energy, loans, consulting services and early warning systems. It is women, especially if impoverished and subject to multiple forms of discrimination, who are most likely to suffer extreme hardship from climate change and ecological destruction, because they are denied equal and documented access to social and natural resources and to planning and decision-making processes for environmental policy.

Although final negotiations on the CSW's conclusions will be led this year by the German government (for the EU), there is very little leeway for further demands. The German/EU delegation will attempt to include e.g. LGBTIQ+ discrimination in the context of environmental crises, but preventing a backlash by reactionary governments remains an ongoing concern. The coalition of democratic-progressive states will be tasked with defending existing agreements, in order not to endanger women's and queer rights therein to health-related, social and political autonomy. The conclusions are therefore expected to contain compromises that do not match feminist positions at climate negotiations.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation will hold side events at the CSW conference to facilitate discussion and networking among partner organisations.[3] 

A movement has to consider how we can shape the transformation in socially just ways. (Barbara Unmüßig)

The ever greater need for political action to address environmental and climate crises is raising the international profile of environmental movements in civil society and their feminist demands. At the same time, women's and feminist movements are devoting ever greater attention to environmental and climate issues. But the crucial struggle by local environmental and women's organisations in the global South – to combine preservation of natural resources with equal rights and access to land – still needs an analogous resurgence or "material turn" in Europe. The political scientist Barbara Holland-Cunz has spoken of the need to "end feminist marginalisation of environmental issues", and welcomed feminism's resumed attention to environmental destruction and climate change – namely to materiality ‒ following a 20-year break.[4

Reinterpreting ecofeminism

Barbara Unmüßig, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, is encouraged by the feminist commitment to environmental movements, especially in connection with equality issues. Although the major environmental organisations tend to be male-dominated, young women in particular have been instrumental in mobilising support and the most famous figures in the Fridays for Future movement are female. The new activists have left behind the at times paralysing debates of the 1990s and 2000s on the relationship of humans to nature, and jettisoned the ecofeminist essentialist notion of women being somehow "closer to nature". While earlier ecofeminist currents formulated radical critiques of the reigning civilisational paradigm and technological mastery over nature, they ultimately contributed to solidifying gender roles and shunting women into the role of "victim" or "healer" in all areas including environmental policy. The social scientist Christa Wichterich criticised the resulting complacency in development and environmental policy, with "women [being] used as a tireless protection and clean-up crew in degraded environments... yet environmental policies were not recast in a user- and gender-equitable manner." Today's actors and activists no longer use ecofeminism for epistemic discursive purposes but rather to describe an inclusive movement for gender-transformative environmental policy.

The idea was always to take a gender perspective on all fields of policy. That was the main message from Beijing. (Barbara Unmüßig)

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has a long tradition of feminist debate. All its positions start from the premise that gender is socially constructed. "Gender policy makes a difference" was the title of the foundation's call in 2007 for social policy envisioning equal rights and opportunities for all genders. This led to a transversal strategy for European and international collaboration that seeks to integrate a gender perspective into all the foundation's fields of action, including of course the key green field of environmental and climate policy. To end discriminatory power relations and resource destruction, the Heinrich Böll Foundation's international offices have launched numerous ecopolitical projects that pursue precisely these cross-cutting policies. Highlighting a gender perspective or intersectional discrimination in contentious topics like geoengineering is not always easy. It requires ecopolitical and gender expertise, and above all the willingness to move beyond gender-blind approaches to environmental policy and the associated economic drivers.

"In what ways do economic and environmental ideas reproduce a gender-specific division of labour that generates an unequal division of power?" asks Barbara Unmüßig, who maintains that "any approach to these issues requires a critical look at power."

This dossier contains a selection of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's contributions over recent decades to international debates on environmental and gender justice, their interconnections, and the need to strengthen both in order to overcome the global ecological and climate crisis as well as gender inequality and discrimination.

We begin with three articles on the role of funding in climate policy, on urbanisation, and on plastic waste. Both the texts and visuals come from the Heinrich Böll Foundation's international offices, and highlight the foundation's cross-cutting policy approach. More articles on additional fields will be added to the dossier in coming weeks.

[1] We understand 'women' as a non-binary social category covering all people who identify with it.

[2] The CSW is charged with overseeing implementation of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action – one of the most important global policy documents on achieving gender equality.

[3] Effects of the pandemic mean this year's event held March 14-25 will be hybrid. All side events organised by civil society will be virtual.

[4] Barbara Holland-Cunz: Die Natur der Neuzeit, 2014.