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Three women: climate, sustainability and patriarchy

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 23 Feb 2011 22:12 GMT
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Garry Selfridge is head of communications for the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King's College, London. The opinions expressed are his own.Thomson Reuters will host an International Women's Day live blog on March 8, 2011.

Humanitarian Futures Programme benefits greatly from collaboration and engagement with a number of highly influential futures thinkers and to mark this 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, I’ve consulted three prominent women who support our cause, to promote a new humanitarianism which will be required to meet the challenges of 21st century.

Arame Tall, the Senegal-based Consultant for Climate Change for Disasters and Development in Africa describes vividly why she sees women in her continent as much more vulnerable than men in the face of hazards presented by climate change; Margareta Wahlstrom, the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), believes women’s  potential for influencing political change is only partially exploited and warns that it is a mistake to think this problem will “heal in time”; and Dr. Funmi Olonisakin, Founder/Director of The African Leadership Centre, sees patriarchy and centuries of structural flaws in society continuing to relegate women to the background, regardless of their talent and critical knowledge.

Arame Tall

“My worry on International Women’s day is on women in my part of Africa who bear the greatest burden in adapting to an increasingly erratic and unpredictable climate, and are left more hopeless than men in their own societies or their counterparts in the developed world, with fewer options and strategies to get out of humanitarian crises which threaten their children and families.”
Arame paints a stark picture of the future facing women in her continent who are forced to cope with the increased intensity and frequency of climate-related disasters.
“Communities feel the brunt of climate-related shocks, and within these communities not everyone is impacted equally. Specifically, women bear the biggest burden. They are the ones who have to walk extra miles when water is scarce. They are the ones who pull the children out of school to help them work the fields when the land becomes dryer and dryer, and yields smaller and smaller.  Women are the ones left most of the time to find solutions and contend with the disastrous impacts of livelihoods that are no longer guaranteed because of changing climate patterns and atmospheric conditions.”
The climate scientist points to the more and more delayed onset of the rainy season experienced in many West African countries, resulting in dramatic livelihood impacts at the community level.  This has translated into reduced yields of crops for people and livestock in communities dependent on rain-fed agriculture.
“The indigenous knowledge and local coping mechanisms that used to be in place traditionally to adjust to natural climate variability are no longer relevant because of the increasingly erratic and unpredictable climate.  Women are the ones who take on the load of sustaining the children and the family within these most vulnerable communities, and they are today confronted by a future with a very tough challenge – where do they go for their livelihoods when alternatives such as crop diversification, simultaneous cattle breeding and agriculture or even petit sale – are just not viable any more.”
Across West Africa women are far superior in numbers than men. In Senegal for example the female population is 60%. Arame says it is critical to focus on the specific vulnerability of women, if we are to find a durable solution to climate change and alleviate its impacts at the community-level.
“We must take a futuristic, pro-active perspective and tailor climate adaptation and resilience-building programmes to the specific needs of women over the next two-to-three decades and beyond.”

Margareta Wahlström

“For me, there are several key opportunities for women at this time.  One is about women making great progress to make sure they use their untapped potential and resources for strengthening the global sustainability,” says Margareta.
She is thinking about the lead and contribution  women can make in converting to greener economies and ensuring there is a strategy for continued growth and at the same time keeping a focus on reducing poverty, through an approach that is sustainable and not uniquely linked to a resource base that can be depleted in the next 20 years.
But she says there must be a real commitment on the part of politicians, social planners and all sectoral policymakers, to take seriously the need to listen to the voice of ordinary women and men in communities, who have particular and insightful perspectives.  
“I’m not saying that we move from government responsibility but that government without citizen input to support some of the tough choices and priorities to deal with current and future risks and sustainability issues, will fail. We need to take very seriously the need to obtain and make use of community knowledge. It is a foundation for change and for innovation”
A significant change in improving citizen consultation that she has seen working herself, is for officials to reduce the number of  intermediaries “who claim to speak on behalf of communities” and to ensure they get the communities to represent themselves, which she ardently believes they are “perfectly capable of doing”.
“It is outrageous to disenfranchise people and to ignore them by using too many intermediaries. Their voices need to be heard and it must inform policy and practice development.”
Margareta believes that despite significant gains in the past 25 years - better education and progress in economic independence as more get work – women face a future in which they will remain marginalised economically.  She strongly believes women’s  potential for influencing political change is only partially exploited and it is a mistake to think this problem will “heal in time”.
“You can say women have a global voice, conference debating has more women these days and the UN woman has been created, but look at the very low proportion of women as parliamentarians across the world, for example”.
Margareta believes women deserve a specific perspective on their needs and it is not good enough to think progress will happen automatically.  She believes there should be more study into the barriers that keep female representation low in some areas – “is there a lack of motivation to immerse themselves fully in the political system or is there a gender perspective that misinterprets the nature and position of women?”


Funmi Olonisakin

“International Women’s Day underscores a history of struggle for suffrage, for rights and for the recognition of resources – intellectual, human and financial - that women have offered to the development of their various countries,” says Funmi. 

She says that distinguishing these contributions by setting aside a special day recognises the “global
invisiblisation of women’s narratives in our histories” and hence the need for a day to remind us not only of the gains that have been made but also of the structural deficits that need to be rectified.

Funmi believes that a society that too readily dismisses women as victims or people who do not have much to say about larger developmental and democratic concerns, is one that cannot effectively treat women as equals.

“I am particularly concerned about the ‘missing’ youth – especially women. This is critical for a continent such as Africa where there is a huge youth bulge with more that 60 percent of African populations consisting of people under the age of 35.We need to start thinking about how we treat this future generation and tap into its talent. We must not see these young women conveniently within traditional socio-economic and political fields. I believe that campaigning for equal opportunities for women remains a vital cause for there remains an imbalance which leaves women absent in critical spaces unlike their male counterparts.”

Male dominated political and economic systems that are sustained by patriarchy have only been slightly destabilised by campaigns by women’s rights actors and allies, she observes. These campaigns  have shifted structures in favour of women but it is not a universal process. 

Funmi sees some progress in contexts such as Europe and North America but there are still regions that lag behind. “I focus on African with a billion people where half of that population (women) remain largely absent when it comes to policy development and responses to human challenges and governance. This is in part due to the demands of daily survival due to the lack of basic needs such as food, water, education, health and shelter. It is also due to the pervasiveness of patriarchy
across most structures within the State.”

She feels it is simplistic to blame gender inequality on men. “But one must recognise the existence of patriarchy as a structure that drives our societies in Europe and Africa alike. It is this complex structure evident in daily socialisation through various institutions such as the family, church, school and today, through the multiplicity of media available to young people, that sustains male privilege and power".

Funmi points out that patriarchy can also be harmful to men since they are socialised into particular ideas of masculinity and this is why her key message is that every citizen ought to have a fighting chance and a choice. “This is very important - to be whatever they want to be. If you prefer to operate in the realm of the family and be a good homemaker it is your choice and society ought to allow you to do that.  If your preference is to be an engineer or a fighter pilot or operate in any profession whatsoever, you should be allowed to pursue it regardless of your sex.”

She calls for a conscious effort to constantly re-socialise ourselves around the values we attach to femininity and masculinity. “This is a very difficult thing, to change structures that have existed for centuries and in essence transform power structures that offer skewed privileges to certain members of the society and not to others.”

Funmi says institutional frameworks are needed to help society become more conscious of its approaches to the place and contribution of women. “It’s not about recognising women as victims.  We should recognise the diversity of expertise that resides with women. We should be tapping into this expertise.”

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