Female-led, island-based solutions to climate change

Women plant mangroves on the coast of Cambodia. Photo by: Manuth Buth / UNDP Cambodia / CC BY-NC

BARCELONA — According to the United Nations, the majority of people displaced by climate change are women. Given that small island developing states are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, logic dictates that the women living in those countries are further affected.

“Indeed, there is a disproportionate effect of climate change to women populations, compared to men, particularly in SIDS,” said Sainivalati S. Navoti, chief of the SIDS unit at the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

There are also differences between women living in rural and urban areas of small islands, said Vivania Tatawaqa, political coordinator of Diverse Voices and Action for Equality in Fiji — a feminist collective led by lesbian and bisexual women, transgender men, and other marginalized women from informal settlements and rural and remote parts of the country.

For those living in the maritime areas of Fiji, the main source of income is from the land and the sea, Tatawaqa said. Given that nearly 90% of global fish stocks are either fully fished or overfished, this can pose a problem for income generation — as can disasters. Multiple disasters in a year affect produce and women’s incomes, she said, adding that there can also be social effects. “When the men are not able to get money, their frustration and patience is very small, which leads to domestic violence,” Tatawaqa said.

Women as change agents

Despite being disproportionately affected and often unable to access solutions-oriented conferences — such as the World Ocean Summit, Women Deliver, and the U.N. General Assembly — many women lead the charge to create local, community-based solutions to tackle the effects of climate change. While there has historically been a lack of women at the decision-making level, the collaborative nature “inherent to the feminine” accelerates solutions, said Farah Obaidullah, founder and director of Women4Oceans.

For example, the Jamaica Environment Trust — founded by a group of female friends in 1991 — runs environmental education and advocacy programs in an attempt to safeguard Jamaica from the effects of climate change.

“Working in an NGO — particularly in a developing country like Jamaica — takes a certain kind of person, and that certain kind of person is usually a woman. It’s a caregiving role, it’s appreciation and care for nature and the environment, and it’s not a very financially rewarding job either,” said Suzanne Stanley, CEO of JET, adding that education tends to attract more women in general.

The organization has helped gain protection for an area of wetlands in Jamaica through advocacy, patrolling, and management of the Pedro Bank fish sanctuary and organized large-scale coastal cleanup events annually.

“Working in an NGO — particularly in a developing country like Jamaica — takes a certain kind of person, and that certain kind of person is usually a woman.”

— Suzanne Stanley, CEO, Jamaica Environment Trust

Other examples of women-led initiatives include the Penietik Women’s Organization in Micronesia — funded by Global Greengrants Fund — which built a system to restore a local community’s clean water supply during a drought. It did this by cleaning two springs and laying pipe to connect them to a village.

The Pari Women’s Development Association in Papua New Guinea has led successful mangrove reforestation efforts, protecting the environment from the greenhouse gases that come from mangrove deforestation. Mangroves play a role in protecting communities from flooding and rising sea levels, and the organization has planted 500 seedlings and launched an awareness campaign to protect such areas.

Among other social issues, DIVA for Equality also tackles climate justice by organizing climate rallies for women and creating a virtual space for marginalized communities to access social support services and learn new skills.

“The government is taking a lot of space in championing climate change but often leaves out the aspect of gender climate justice: What does climate impact really do on gender?” Tatawaqa said. The group is advocating for a change in environmental policies but also focuses on helping women who are “going further out in the sea to get food for their family [and] having to leave their family behind just [to] go and fetch food from another part of the island.”

Sharing lessons learned

As the countries on the front lines of climate change, SIDS can serve as an example to others on how to respond, mitigate, and act accordingly. “Every coastal space and every state really has a lot to learn from SIDS,” Navoti said. “SIDS are at the forefront, and this phenomenon will affect each country in the world in one way or another.”

What’s more, there are lessons that can be learned from the women leading successful initiatives on SIDs about what has worked for them and how they’re tackling climate change from a gender perspective.

Tatawaqa said it’s important to strike a balance between achieving change at a higher policy level and making a difference on the ground.

“Let’s not all get caught up with meetings and trying to change policies,” she said. “Let’s also make sure we have some headspace to work on the ground, to help the people who are really facing the impacts of climate change. As much as the politics of climate change is important, it’s also very important to keep supporting the people who are already fighting on a daily basis just so they can survive each day.”

Stanley said her advice for others would be to celebrate the small victories, regardless of whether they are policy changes, events, or successful campaigns.

“It takes a lot of courage, it takes a lot of persistence, of patience. Advocacy is not an overnight thing; changes are small, and sometimes even the victories can be overshadowed by things that happened thereafter,” she said.

Tracy Mann, project director at Climate Wise Women — a global initiative to promote women's leadership on climate change — said she had learned from the organization’s founders, who hail from the U.S., Carteret Islands, Cook Islands, and Uganda, that it takes time to build trust and develop deep relationships within and between communities and to always be optimistic.

“There is no option to be depressed or desist from trying to find a solution,” she said.

Visit the Turning the Tide series for more coverage on climate change, resilience building, and innovative solutions in small island developing states. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #TurningtheTide.

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About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.