Resistance and Resilience: Women in Climate Activism

Side Event at Stockholm+50

June 2022

In June 2022, ICNL, EarthRights International, DefendDefenders, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly co-hosted a side event at Stockholm+50, entitled “Resistance and Resilience: Enhancing civic space for women and girls in climate activism.” The event featured women speakers from five continents and six countries. They discussed their diverse experiences with the challenges facing women environmental defenders. From women fighting at the grassroots level to defend their community’s natural resources to female government officials pushing to be heard at international climate negotiations, the speakers highlighted barriers to safe participation in climate and environmental advocacy.

The structural barriers to the participation of women and girls in critical decision-making are immense, from physical exclusion at conferences dominated by aggressive male policymakers to the absence of legal and land rights. Speakers from the Philippines, Liberia, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Sweden discussed violent and demeaning rhetoric against women, attacks and arrests targeting female environmental defenders, and the marginalization of indigenous women in decisions affecting their traditional territories.

Sweden’s Ambassador for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, Cecilia Ruthström-Ruin, opened the event, highlighting Sweden’s feminist foreign policy and the need for far more gender equality and protection for women environmental defenders worldwide. Ambassador Ruthström-Ruin’s opening remarks were followed by video remarks from Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, member and Vice-Chair of the UN Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls. Ms. Estrada-Tanck discussed the results of studies conducted by the UN Working Group documenting the immense challenges posed to women by discriminatory laws and practices, including resource governance.

Following opening remarks, a moderated panel of five women discussed their personal experiences and recommendations for securing civic protections for women environmental defenders. Camila Zepeda, Mexico’s Lead Climate & Biodiversity Negotiator, addressed the need for more women at climate and policy negotiating tables, noting that without women present, gender action plans do not make it on the agenda, much less into international agreements. Camila also stated that physical barriers to access, including informal hallway huddles and traditionally male spaces, continue to exclude women from key decision-making opportunities in climate negotiations and other critical policy areas.

Mitzi Jonelle Tan, the international spokesperson for Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines and activist with Fridays for Future, discussed specific gendered threats she has faced as a young activist based in Manila. For example, she highlighted government officials’ comments criticizing female advocates for wearing ‘short-shorts’ to entice men into the rebel army for terrorist purposes, in the context of ‘red-tagging’ and persecution of rights defenders in the Philippines. She also discussed how the increase in authoritarianism during COVID-19, including the passage of the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, has intensified the targeting of human rights defenders.

Radiatu H.S. Kahnplaye, of Green Advocates International and Natural Resource Women Platform, discussed the tension between traditional patriarchal culture in her native Liberia, particularly in rural areas, and the need to bring women into decision-making spaces meaningfully. She talked about operating in a climate of harassment, where she and individuals in her organization have been subject to arrest and targeting by security officials for their work on sensitive land and resource issues. She also suggested several solutions to these challenges, from providing women more legal rights, especially around land ownership, to capacity-building and supporting women defenders in their work.

Natalia Gomez, a Climate Change Policy Advisor from EarthRights International, discussed EarthRights’ findings that women environmental defenders are increasingly targeted with violence, harassment, and criminalization. Natalia noted that as the climate crisis worsens, so does the violence against those protecting the environment. Additionally, most climate-damaging projects are located in indigenous territories, endangering the lives and livelihoods of already vulnerable populations. Natalia called on States at UNFCCC negotiations to recognize the violence environmental defenders face and commit to their protection when addressing the climate crisis.

Anoshka Violeta Irey Cameno, an indigenous leader of the Harabukt people of Madre de Dios in the Peruvian Amazon, discussed her leadership role as a council member of the Federación Nativa del Río Madre de Dios y Afluentes (FENAMAD) working to protect the Amazon rainforest. Violeta highlighted the importance of traditional knowledge and wisdom of indigenous peoples in providing concrete solutions to environmental crises and the violence they are suffering because of their work. She explained that FENAMAD has been criminalized because of its work protecting the environment and is currently being sued by a timber company for denouncing the company’s activities. Despite their invaluable contributions and knowledge, indigenous peoples and women continue to be marginalized in decision-making around their natural resources and territories.

Following the panel discussion, audience members asked what more can be done to protect female environmental defenders and how to advance gender equity in policy spaces, given the past fifty years of relative inertia on these issues.

Despite the challenges, panelists were optimistic and determined to fight for gender equity and environmental protection. They had several concrete recommendations, including:

  • Greater coalition-building and unified messaging from the grassroots to high-level policymakers;
  • Coordination among champions of women’s rights from different countries and regions;
  • Expanding space for women defenders and civil society groups to participate in shaping solutions to crises, particularly those that disproportionately affect them (like the climate and biodiversity crises);
  • At the international level, ensuring space for women defenders and policymakers, particularly from the Global South. This space can be created by prioritizing female participation, facilitating visa access and translation, and creating dedicated safe spaces for women to engage and have equality at the decision-making table;
  • Governments should also protect environmental defenders and provide special protections for marginalized groups, including environmental, women’s rights, and indigenous activists. For example, governments should pass human rights defender legislation, penalize those who persecute defenders rather than provide them impunity, and avoid using national security legislation, such as counterterrorism laws, to suppress environmental advocacy;
  • Governments should also pass legislation protecting land rights for women and indigenous peoples and implement equity policies to encourage female participation in decision-making;
  • Businesses and private actors should do more to protect women environmental defenders by adopting meaningful human rights policies, elevating female leadership internally and in communities with whom they engage, and centering communities and female leaders in decisions affecting their resources.
Speakers from ICNL's joint side event at Stockholm+50, "Resistance and Resilience: Enhancing civic space for women and girls in climate activism." Panelists from five continents and six countries discussed their diverse experiences with the challenges facing women environmental defenders. (Photo: ICNL)
Speakers from ICNL's joint side event at Stockholm+50, "Resistance and Resilience: Enhancing civic space for women and girls in climate activism." Panelists from five continents and six countries discussed their diverse experiences with the challenges facing women environmental defenders. (Photo: ICNL/2022)