Recently, MADRE was invited to participate in the Marion Institute’s 10th annual “Connecting for Change” conference. The conference’s purpose was to inspire diverse communities to take action on environmental and social justice issues.
Watch the moving keynote delivered by Diana Duarte, MADRE Communications Director, on how women are disproportionately impacted by climate change and are well positioned to lead the movement to end the global crisis.
Good morning everyone. Thank you for having me. I am so happy to be here with you all at this gathering, connecting us all for change.
My name is Diana Duarte, and I am the communications director of MADRE. MADRE is an international women’s human rights organization. We partner with grassroots women to do two things. One – to confront immediate threats and improve conditions in their communities. And two – to advocate for their human rights. When these two combine – when they connect for change – that’s how we create lasting social justice.
You’ve come here today to learn about innovators who are coming together to create positive change in their communities. And I’m here to tell you about how grassroots women worldwide are organizing to confront one of the biggest crises of our time – climate change.
But first, I want to tell you a personal story.
In 1956, my grandmother was a young woman with 4 small children, living in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa. On that arid chain of islands, there was never enough rain. Instead of rain, there were droughts powerful enough to be memorialized in traditional songs about “fomi” or hunger.
These periods of drought and hunger defined life for decades, so people began to seek out new lives elsewhere. And my grandmother was one of them. She packed two suitcases, got on a trans-Atlantic ship and came right here, to New Bedford. Over the years, she worked hard to raise money and eventually brought her children to join her – one of those children was my father.
Driven by climate pressures and resource scarcity, hundreds of thousands of Cape Verdeans left the islands they knew behind. Today, there are more Cape Verdeans living outside of the islands than inside – and many of them settled right here in New Bedford.
Why am I telling you all this? Because this story does not stand alone – it is all connected.
As climate change intensifies, it makes the Cape Verdean story almost prophetic. More and more places have been hit by droughts and famines, hurricanes and storms that turn the most vulnerable people into climate refugees. More and more people are being forced to adapt to their new, harsh circumstances, or to leave their homelands altogether.
And I’m telling you this because, across the world and across history, women – just like my grandmother— have struggled to sustain themselves and their families in the face of a changing and often hostile climate.
This is a big part of why today’s message – connecting for change – is so important. We are all connected by the ways our climate and our histories intersect.
Our best chance for confronting our climate crisis head-on lies in recognizing these connections – and soon. Because the world has already reaching a tipping point in its ability to absorb the harmful impacts of rampant resource exploitation. Years of industrialization and essentially unchecked greenhouse gas emissions have already begun to release a cascade of dangers. More severe storms. Longer and drier droughts. More fatal flooding. Coastlines erased by rising water levels. For many of you sitting in this room, these predictions are nothing new.
If we want to guard against these outcomes, we need action now. We need binding policy commitments by the world’s governments to reduce and halt greenhouse gas emissions. This means changing the way we produce and consume our fuel, our food, our basic materials of life. We need to find ways to live more sustainably, in our local communities and worldwide.
I’m saying all of this to convey that we’re living in an incredibly urgent moment. To create the strong strategies that we need, we must remember the ways in which everything is connected – person-to-person, issue-to-issue, crisis-to-crisis. We can’t afford to face the consequences of missing or ignoring those connections.
Let’s switch gears for a moment. You know, once I was at a United Nations climate conference, and when I told another participant that I came from a women’s rights organization, he asked, “So why exactly are you here? What’s the connection between women and the climate crisis?”
I think it’s important to take the time to answer that question. First of all, though, climate change is not gender-neutral. Women and men have distinct social roles, roles that women’s rights activists have often sought to highlight and challenge. But these differing roles as they exist today mean that women and men are impacted differently by climate change.
In nearly every society, women are responsible for securing food, water, and – particularly in the Global South – household fuel and medicinal plants. And these resources depend on the stability of the climate. This places women at the heart of the economy and the environment the world over.
In short, women’s livelihoods depend more on the ecosystems that are threatened by climate change.
It’s widely recognized that poor people are being hit first and worst by impacts of climate change. Fewer people, however, acknowledge that the majority of poor people worldwide—nearly six in ten—are women.
Fewer people acknowledge how poverty and gender discrimination interact with climate change to produce deadly results for women and girls. Consider, for instance, that unequal access to resources within communities, or even within families or households, takes away the economic safety net women need during and after a natural disaster.
Consider also, that studies have found that natural disasters kill three to four times as many women as men. Three to four times. Sometimes it’s because when the floodwaters are rising, women are more likely to be at home caring for children and the elderly. They’re not able to flee at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it’s because women are denied education and access to information, which may put early warnings systems out of their reach.
But women are not just victims of climate dangers. They are powerful sources of solutions.
Women have historically developed the kinds of sustainable and local solutions to ecological challenges that we now need to adapt and replicate to confront climate change. These solutions include sustainable agriculture, preserving biodiversity, securing fresh water supplies, and more. Women have constructed wind-resistant housing in Bangladesh. They have unionized to pool their knowledge as subsistence farmers in Sudan.
Women worldwide are also spearheading strategies to confront the causes of climate change. In communities across the globe, women have made themselves the first line of defense of resource-rich territories.
Here’s an example. Nowadays, “tree-hugger” is practically an insult. But before and since that happened, women in India were active in preserving their country’s tree cover – by hugging trees. They were central to the Chipko Movement, mobilizing in masses to encircle trees to keep them from being cut down by loggers. Remember that when we lose trees, we destroy a vital mechanism to filter carbon out of the air and store it safely in our soil.
When we face a large-scale problem – like climate change – it is easy to assume that it demands large-scale solutions. And we do, in fact, need a coherent global response. But sustainable practices—in agriculture, industry, energy, community design and even government—occur in specific places.
Just two weeks ago, I returned from a trip to Nicaragua. For more than 30 years, my organization MADRE has partnered with Indigenous women in that country to confront the most pressing challenges they faced – to build peace and end violence, to bring vitally-needed health services, to promote women’s economic independence. Our ties to Indigenous communities on the North Atlantic coast of Nicaragua are deep and long-lasting.
I was there for a special occasion – an annual forum organized by our local partner organization, an Indigenous women’s grassroots group called Wangki Tangni. This forum brought more than 1,000 women to a small town called Waspam, on Nicaragua’s northern border. Many of those women traveled for days to get there, some by foot, some on boats along a river called the Rio Coco. I met one woman who traveled for two days in a canoe with her one-month old baby daughter strapped to her chest – just so that she could be part of this forum.
Why did these women feel that it was so important to be there? We asked that question to some of them. Many of them were leaders in their own villages, organizing to improve conditions for their families and communities. They wanted to meet with other women activists from the region, to share their stories and experiences. And they wanted the chance to present their demands to the local and regional authorities who would attend the forum. This annual forum represented a unique opportunity to strategize and collaborate – not unlike our gathering today.
But over and over, we heard a refrain – climate change is a clear and present threat to their lives and communities. They see it in the irregular weather patterns that make local harvests unpredictable and threaten their food supply. They see it in the intensified storms that have hit the North Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. These tropical storms have washed harvests away, making their food security even more precarious. Just this past week, there have been torrential downpours that displaced 33,000 people in Nicaragua.
At this forum, women spoke out about the solutions they have devised. For instance, with MADRE support, our partners have set up a seed bank. From one harvest to the next, they collect and preserve seeds. This conserves local biodiversity and protects seed stores from worsening hurricanes associated with climate change.
In this way, Indigenous women at the grassroots level model the potential of a small-scale intervention with outsized impact. This impact lies not just in promoting women’s livelihoods, local food security and alternatives to industrialized agriculture. It also models the kind of climate change response we need: one that is community-controlled and democratic.
In other words, their seed bank means some measure of food security into the next planting season. But it also gives us a glimpse at what is possible – what it looks like when people control their food supply. What it looks like when women become community leaders and stage interventions to protect local well-being.
If we don’t recognize the leadership of Indigenous women like MADRE’s partners, at the local and global levels, that is a missed connection – the type of missed connection we cannot afford as the clock runs down on our opportunities to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Consider another story from MADRE’s work with women worldwide. In Kenya, a long, terrible drought seized an area of rural and Indigenous communities. Their water dried up. Their cattle – their main source of income and financial security – died. Families did what they thought they had to in order to survive. They turned to the one expendable resource they had left – their daughters.
If they had daughters in school, some families pulled them out. They thought, better to have them at home to help search for and haul dwindling water supplies. They thought, how can we worry about a little thing like education when we barely have enough food and water to get by?
Some families found another option. Maybe there was an older man in the community, richer by comparison. If he was willing to pay a dowry in exchange for marriage to their daughter, that could mean the resources that they needed. So they marry off their young daughter. Often that means, no more schooling for her.
At MADRE, we learned of these stories because we partner with a local women’s organization called the Indigenous Information Network. They run a network of girls’ schools. They saw all the obstacles that got in the way of a girl going to school. And they saw the clear connection to climate change, plain as day.
Climate change creates drought. Drought makes poor families take their girls out of school, marry them off too early.
But when we talk about climate change – in the media or in global policy – how often do we talk about these impacts? About what it means for women and girls, like our partners in rural Kenya? This is another missed connection. When we recognize this type of connection, we are better able to respond to climate threats in ways that protect everyone, including the most vulnerable.
So far, the stories I’ve told have been small-scale and local – about what happens when women in India, in Bangladesh, in Sudan, in Nicaragua or in Kenya act at the grassroots level. But it can’t stop there.
We need to have grassroots women’s voices at the table with policymakers on climate. We need to make sure that environmental policies are informed by a perspective on how gender and climate change are related. This is critical for three reasons.
First – as I’ve said, the impacts of climate change are gender-specific. Climate change policies that recognize this are better able to protect the majority of the world’s people, particularly the most vulnerable—infants, children, the sick, disabled and elderly—who are often under the direct care of women.
Second – if we ignore gender in climate change policies, we not only miss the chance to protect the most vulnerable. We put them in even greater danger. Think of those early warning mechanisms I mentioned that only operate in public places where women are denied access.
And finally, third – without a gender analysis, climate change policies miss a critical opportunity embedded within the threat that we face. Namely, our global response to the climate crisis is our chance to reimagine our economies and societies. This is arguably the only hopeful aspect of the crisis. But seizing this opportunity requires action that is visionary, holistic, equitable and bold.
To do this, policymakers, environmental advocates and other stakeholders need to consult with grassroots women as experts, not just as victims. And they must also support women’s demands for an end to the multiple forms of discrimination that prevent them from becoming leaders.
This is a crucial part of MADRE’s work. For decades now, we’ve worked with an understanding of the ways that local conditions are impacted by decisions made far away, often by policymakers with little knowledge of the people and places they will impact.
No issue better illustrates this dynamic than climate change. While impacts such as floods and food shortages are local, their cause transcends national boundaries. Without a global policy response, the advances of place-based activists in any one location are always at risk of being undermined by ongoing carbon pollution elsewhere.
Climate change calls on us to empower local activists to have a voice in global policymaking. So at MADRE, we do this by listening to grassroots women who are on the frontlines of climate change, yet whose perspectives and priorities are largely absent from policymaking.
We provide humanitarian aid and direct services, ensuring that local women can meet immediate needs for themselves and their families so that they can focus on longer-term goals such as environmental sustainability.
We provide training so that those activists are ready to represent their issues to policymakers.
We create the space for conversations not only between community-based women and policymakers at all levels, but also between the women themselves. By linking grassroots women around the world to one another, they are able to share strategies and learn from each other.
Finally, MADRE ensures that advances at the international level are “brought home,” by the activists who helped realize them. We must ensure that activists can win implementation of promising policies and actually improve conditions on the ground.
This integrated strategy connects grassroots women to policymakers and to each other to create impactful change.
I’ve been reading a book by a writer called Rebecca Solnit. It’s called Hope in the Dark, and it begins with a quote by Virginia Woolf, that goes, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Thinking about climate change, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and scared. We see that the future is dark, and we worry about what terrible thing might be around the corner. But the future is also dark because we don’t know what comes next – and we have the power to shape it.
In her book, Rebecca Solnit makes the case for hope. I want to share some of her inspirational words with you, and I quote:
“I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”
There is hope at the heart of everything I’ve been saying to you here today. When women organize to protect their communities from climate change, it’s because of their abiding, irrepressible hope in the possibilities of the future.
Before I finish, I have one more personal note. My father was one of the children my grandmother worked to bring over here. His name is Virgulino Duarte, and today is his 70th birthday. It’s a big milestone. He has seen many changes in his seventy years. For instance, seventy years ago, we did not yet fully know what a crisis that climate change would become – now we do.
I can’t know what the world will be like when I am 70. But my father has always taught me the importance of grappling with the world we live in today, to try to make it better for each other and for the next generation. That value brought me to MADRE, it brought me here today, and I hope it will continue to connect us all for change.