What happens when the rains don’t stop? Or never come? And how does that affect women and girls?
This is one of the topics addressed by WomenStrong International’s Executive Director Susan M. Blaustein before hundreds of educators, UN leaders, and climate change activists meeting with the Committee on Teaching about the UN (CTAUN) at its annual conference in New York on April 5th.
It’s also a very real question confronting communities where WomenStrong International is working with women and girls to end extreme urban poverty.
From failed farms to city slums, the trajectories of women’s responses to climate change across WomenStrong programs from India to Kenya, Ghana, and Haiti are tales of strength, resilience, and mastery overcoming hardship, marginalization, and crushed hopes. Uprooted by the sell-off of their unproductive farmlands to real estate developers, these women and families, innocent of the abuse of our planet that has ravaged their lives and communities, are nevertheless forced to reinvent themselves, step by step, in the city.
That’s the situation we’ve seen play out in the peri-urban areas around Kumasi, the capital of Ghana’s Ashanti region, where WomenStrong works. The lack of farming income has meant families can no longer afford to send their girls to school. It also causes girls to move into cities to seek employment, contributes to early or forced marriages, and has fueled girls’ entry into sex work.
Our Ashanti partner has held a series of meetings with community stakeholders – mothers, teachers, pastors and imams – and developed a plan for getting those girls back to school. But it’s a challenge. Even the most determined, cohesive community cannot fix climate disruptions leading to their fast-changing way of life.
Also presenting on Dr. Blaustein’s panel was former UN Assistant Secretary-General Dr. Franz Baumann, who emphasized the urgent need to address climate change in light of its steep acceleration in recent decades, and Igarape Institute research fellow Giovanna Marques Kuele, who offered strong recommendations for engaging the public and private sectors in addressing these challenges, including the exploitation by organized crime of climate change affecting the Amazon in her native Brazil.
Other powerful conference speakers included ocean explorer and environmental activist Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the great Jacques Cousteau; United Nations Environmental Programme New York Director Jamil Ahmad; Karenna Gore, founding director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary; and Eve Gartner, who is spearheading the legal charge at the non-profit Earth Justice to protect the environment from regulatory rollbacks undertaken by the current U.S. administration.
An earlier panel celebrated young people from Queens, NY, who, as part of the organization Global Kids, have quickly become climate activists and student leaders who attended the 2018 COP24 Conference in Katowice, Poland.
Dr. Blaustein heralded their accomplishment and gumption, saluting as well 16-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, organizer of the highly successful School Strike 4 Climate movement, and the 21 American student plaintiffs whose lawsuit against the U.S. Government to “secure the legal right to a safe climate” is moving steadily through the courts.
“It’s both awesome, and profoundly shaming,” Dr. Blaustein noted, “that it takes 16- and 11-year-old nature lovers to lead the way.”
But Blaustein and all the CTAUN speakers stressed that it will take all hands on deck. These passionate young civic leaders, and the women and girls at the grassroots with whom WomenStrong works, whose lives have already been brutally overturned by climate change, now need the concerted urgent action of government, international organizations, industry, the scientific community, and the tireless, creative efforts of educators such as those attending this UN conference, to alert the world and to stop the avalanche of change already hurtling across our planet.