Finding yourself in a conference room listening to young climate activist women and coming out with tears in your eyes and a knot in your throat: this is also the COP25. The meeting consisted in a round table discussion on the theme of gender issues and climate justice with young women from countries of the global South as speakers.
I first joined the event out of curiosity to listen to the intervention of a Lebanese friend, whom I had the pleasure to know only through an exchange of information in the past months, but that I hadn’t met yet. We will have an in-depth meeting with her in the coming days. Thus, I start listening to her speech and the ones of the other women who are sitting on a table in a crowded room. And I’m totally charmed by their storytelling. These stories are about Africa, South America, the Middle East… there is a bit of the whole world. Stories about women and their suffering which has multiple origins.
They tell of the changing climate, with droughts, heat waves, soil degradation, and the increasingly heavy rains. Their impacts reduce access to water, food and health. All this exacerbates the challenges of every woman, especially in cultural contexts of deep distress. For instance, in Senegal where many girls are still forced to undergo the practice of excision. In addition to the pain that is imposed on them, they also suffer from the lack of water to wash and disinfect themselves that could give them some physical relief. The latter because there is progressively less water and the wells are increasingly distant and drier.
The speakers stress that the barriers that these women are facing are primarily cultural and social. Gender inequalities are the first and most important barriers that prevent any climate policy from achieving results. These are, above all, inequalities that affect indigenous women and young people.
At this point, some of the speakers testify their personal experience. “The violence that our land is subjected to is the same as the one that our bodies had to endure.” It doesn’t matter who said it, time stopped for a few seconds. I think everyone in the room was deeply moved by a whirlwind of emotions. Tears couldn’t resist coming down. And with a simple gesture of complete feminine solidarity the women on stage give each other a caress and a tissue to dry those tears.
The cultural barrier that affects these girls forces them to face a thousand difficulties even when they work in their organizations. They are young and old enough to get married and have children, something that “normally a woman has to do” in many countries. And, thus, being a climate activist is stigmatized.
However, the commitment of these women persists, and they present examples of projects and actions, also through music and theatre, aimed at training, educating, and supporting women to acquire the necessary resources to deal with the various challenges. Furthermore, they empower these women to contribute to foster cultural changes in their communities.
The gender issue has been finally brought into the conversations at COP, it is mentioned in the speeches, and a specific action plan, the Gender Action Plan, was adopted in Bonn during COP23. This is an important step, but there is still a long way to go and more adequate financial resources must be guaranteed to be able to translate the plan into concrete and incisive actions.
On the screen next to the speakers’ table, the words “We cannot fight climate change with only 50% of the population” stand out. If, today, the call coming out from the Madrid COP is to tackle the problem of climate change as a real emergency, it is also necessary to recognize that there is a gender emergency. This acknowledgement starts from recognising and removing the cultural, social, and economic barriers posed by a system of inequality and violence against women. I leave the room with a fist in my stomach but when looking at these young women I feel that these are the leaders we need today. And hope comes back.