The Face In The Mirror

The lilac bushes in my little garden were in bud by mid-January. Parts of Australia are still burning. Kenya is battling its worst desert locust outbreak in 70 years and this time the infestation—a huge dark gray umbrella against the sky—has spread through the eastern part of the continent and the Horn of Africa. I know. You didn’t want to read that. I didn’t want to write it.

The locusts are razing pasture and croplands in Somalia and Ethiopia, and sweeping into South Sudan, Djibouti, Uganda, and Tanzania; there are as many as 80 million adult locusts in each square kilometer, and they are laying eggs that will hatch in June for another swarm.

Three-quarters of the world’s ocean waters have quickened their pace in recent decades, scientists now say. That’s a massive development not expected to occur until climate warming was much more advanced, by the end of this century. The change is being driven by faster winds, which are adding more energy to the surface of the ocean. That, in turn, produces faster currents and an acceleration of ocean circulation. The increase in speed is most intense in tropical oceans and especially the vast Pacific. All this suggests the Earth might actually be more sensitive to climate change than our simulations currently show.

On January 29, The International Union for Conservation of Nature (known especially for tracking endangered species) published a new Report, chronicling how environmental degradation disproportionately hurts women. The researchers used more than 80 global case studies, more than 1,000 sources, and feedback from peer reviewers–all of which make it one of the most in-depth analyses of the complex linkage between violence against women and environmental degradation ever attempted.

The findings confirm what we already knew or suspected based on experiential and anecdotal evidence. Women have always been and still are the water haulers and fuel gatherers and farmers of the world. So it’s not surprising that for decades the global Women’s Movement has been crying out—canaries in the mine–for attention to these issues. For instance, women in the so-called developing world are responsible for well over 50 percent of all food production; on the African continent women do 60 percent of all agricultural work, 50 percent of all animal husbandry, and 100 percent of all food processing. In many African languages the word for woman and farmer is the same word. Globally, toxic pesticides and herbicides, chemical warfare, leakage from nuclear waste, acid rain, and other such pollutants take their first toll as a rise in cancers of the female reproductive system, and in miscarriages, stillbirths, and congenital deformities.

But these new IUCN findings add important data and insights. Policy makers, program developers, NGOs and activists, funders, and ordinary regular citizens of the planet would all do well to study this report, because it reveals the interlinking nature of sex-based violence across three main contexts: 1) access to and control of natural resources; 2) environmental pressure and threats; and 3) environmental action to defend and conserve ecosystems and resources.

Here are some sample insights I can offer you from the comprehensive 272-page report.

While we already know that women have less access to natural resources and face higher threats of violence when commercial loggers or fisheries come to their communities, we now realize that women also face more direct consequences from these environmental threats, particularly if they choose or are forced to defend land and resources. For example, we know that environmental defenders, especially Indigenous peoples, face high murder rates. Over the past 15 years, at least 684 individuals have been killed trying to protect their land. This threat is present for all environmental defenders regardless of gender, but the Report details how women are at extra risk. There have been 609 instances of aggression against Central American and Mexican women between 2015 and 2016 alone. Furthermore, the Report’s authors surveyed experts and found 59 percent of respondents had observed sex-based violence related to environmental issues, including land rights and energy infrastructure. Women’s roles in society, already enforced and reinforced, are weaponized against them if they engage in environmental activism and protection. The double burden women face as mothers and activists has led some communities to label them “bad mothers” for leaving their children at home when off working to defend their environment and communities. In some cases, women environmental defenders have had to contend with threats that their children will be taken away from them as a consequence.

Not only women activists are endangered, however. All women face environmental risks, especially in the Global South, where extreme weather events are taking on new forms as the planet heats up. The warming of the Earth is disrupting natural cycles on which communities rely to grow and search for food. In all parts of the world, women handle the life-sustaining household duties, and women must manage food scarcity after extreme weather hits. When crops are wiped out, women must deal with how to feed their families. Additionally, competition over increasingly scarce and degraded resources, and in general the stress of such situations, exacerbates sex-based violence, the Report confirms. Then, too, there are the specific hazards faced by women and girls when they’re displaced and become refugees: rape, abduction, being forced into survival prostitution and human trafficking in sexual slavery, labor slavery, surrogacy, or organ selling.

Violence is hardly limited to Global South, though. There was a surge in abuse after Hurricane Michael in 2018 in the U.S., for instance. For years, Indigenous leaders in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere have been sounding alarms on the dangers that oil and gas projects pose to local women, because these projects bring male outsiders into tight-knit communities. Sexual violence, disappearances of girls and women, even “femicide” murders typically follow the creation of oil and gas worker “man camps.”

This is the grim reality, finally studied and acknowledged by the scientific community, even if not yet by everyone else.

Yet despair lets us off the hook. And there are glimmers of light. One is ironic. New research suggests scientists may have to increase their estimates for present day leakage from oil and gas drilling by 25 to 40 percent—and that’s actually not terrible news. If oil and gas fields are leaking more than we thought, then stopping that could slow global warming and buy us time right when the Earth needs it most.

The other glimmer of light is not ironic. It’s as clear as an un-smoggy day. It’s women coming to voice and coming to power.

Every major initiative toward environmental sanity in the last half century has had its origins in women’s activism, from Rachel Carson to Greta Thunberg. To cite only a few:

  • The Green Belt Movement in Kenya was started by one woman, Wangari Maathai, planting trees—and it has spread first across the continent of Africa, then throughout the Global South.
  • The first challenges to agribusiness via practical theories about women and sustainable agriculture, by scholar-activist Vandana Shiva of India—and the so-called Tree Huggers of India, who mounted a massive forest protection mobilization to ensure the sustainability of trees because for generations they have gathered the fallen branches and twigs for fuel.
  • The contemporary Amazons: real women leaders emerging from Indigenous communities to defend the majestic river from damming and development and keep the ranchers and miners from destroying the great jungle, which is called “the lungs of the world.”
  • The “Barefoot Engineers” of Southeast Asia, non-literate women training themselves and each other and fanning out to install donated solar electricity grids so the region can become electrified—and they can study at night, and learn to read.
  • The feminist coalition across 10,000 small Pacific island nations that 40 years ago organized to stop nuclear testing on these islands, since the women had made the connections between those tests and the precipitous rise in their own bodies and communities of cancers of the female reproductive system, and of stillborn and deformed births.

So no time to be depressed. No waste of energy on fear. Knowledge is power. And if you or good people you know have been resisting direct activism regarding climate change because although-of-course-you-believe-it’s-real-and-worry-about-it-a-lot, somehow the link between it and your own gut, your own everyday life, has seemed remote, time to act now. Whatever form your action takes—the crucial U.S. elections, joining or supporting environmental groups, community activism, whatever—time to stop asking Why doesn’t somebody DO something?! Ask that of the face in your mirror.

Meanwhile, I urge you to download this free, gender-based violence Report from Read it, share it, use it. You need to know the truths in its pages. This is no hyperbole: Your life will depend on it.