9 inspiring examples of women’s climate activism

Here is a list of nine fantastic and inspiring examples of feminist and women’s activism on climate change and environmental issues, put together in honour of Blog Action Day 2009.

When I participated back in 2007, I set out why climate change is a feminist issue, and frankly I feel like I’ve covered this point a lot in the last couple of years. The number of blog posts and articles constantly expressing surprise that the words “women” and “climate change” are uttered in the same breath hasn’t abated, but none the less, I want to move on from that a bit.

Instead, this is a good opportunity to look at some of the amazing feminist activism around climate change and environmental issues more generally, and get inspired for doing something ourselves. I’ve tried to pick out examples we’ve not highlighted on this site before – also, as Madre points out, it’s also Rural Women’s Day – as you can see from the list below, so often women’s eco activism *is* rural women’s action.

chipko.gif1. Origins of ‘tree hugger’

The (sometimes dismissive, now mainstream) use of the term tree hugger to describe environmental activists originates with the Chipko movement in India in the 1970s, led by village women. Women in World History explains:

In the 1980s the ideas of the Chipko movement spread, often by women talking about them at water places, on village paths, and in markets. Women decided they were not powerless; there were actions they could take and a movement which would support them. Songs and slogans were created.

In one the contractor says:

“You foolish village women, do you know what these forest bear?

Resin, timber, and therefore foreign exchange!”

The women answer:

“Yes, we know. What do the forests bear?

Soil, water, and pure air,

Soil, water, and pure air.”

2. Vandana Shiva

No list like this could be complete with mentioning Vandana Shiva, an early and tireless ecofeminist. She was also active in the Chipko movement, (see above). Her books, including Staying Alive and Ecofeminism

have made a crucial contribution to ecofeminist thought and practice.

According to the UN’s Who’s Who of Women and the Environment:

In 1982, she founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. This institute is dedicated to high quality and independent research to address the most significant ecological and social issues of our times, in close partnership with local communities and social movements. Initiatives of this foundation are the organic farming programme Navdanya, the Bija Vidyapeeth (or Seed University, International College for Sustainable Living), and ‘Diverse Women for Diversity’.

The movement Navdanya focuses on biodiversity conservation and farmers’ rights. ‘Navdanya’ means nine crops that represent India’s collective source of food security. The main aim of the Navdanya biodiversity conservation programme is to support local farmers, rescue and conserve crops and plants that are being pushed to extinction and make them available through direct marketing. Navdanya is actively involved in the rejuvenation of indigenous knowledge and culture. It has created awareness on the hazards of genetic engineering, defended people’s knowledge from biopiracy and food rights in the face of globalization. It has its own seed bank and organic farm spread over 20 acres in Uttranchal, northern India.

You can see some of the work her NGO Navdanya is doing on climate change here.

gbm.gif3. The Green Belt Movement

Nobel-prize-winner and the first woman in East or Central Africa to get a PhD, Wangari Maathai (left, photo by Mary Davidson) started the Green Belt Movement with the National Council of Women of Kenya, which has now planted more than 35 million trees.

The Independent ran a long profile of Maathai, explaining the whole story, which is well worth reading. About the origins of the Green Belt Movement, it says:

It was at this personal midnight that she returned to the small seeds she had begun to plant years before. She decided to urge women to plant whole forests. She wanted to see an entire new green belt across Kenya nurtured by women.

She managed to persuade international aid organisations to pay women a very small sum – around 2p – for successfully planting each tree. At first, local men scoffed. What could women do? How could they make trees grow? What did this belong in our traditions? But women were soon organising themselves from village to village into independent committees. “We started by planting trees, but soon we were planting ideas! We were showing women could be an independent force. That they were strong.”

WEN.gif4. Setting the manifesto

The Women’s Environment Network works here in the UK to raise awareness of climate change issues, and solidly carry on a wide range of campaigning work on environmental issues. In amongst all its interesting work on this issue, the network put together a landmark women’s manifesto on climate change.

It is a great tool, totally useful for setting out why women have so much at stake in the climate change debate. Download it, read it, use it here.

5. Sailing the Waves on our Own

I know I already posted this not so long ago, but I had to include Ursula Rakova from the Carteret Islands, who formed Sailing the Waves on our Own, to relocate and rebuild people’s homes in the face of rising sea levels, once it became clear that international help was not going to do the job.

6. Protest quilts

Another one I’ve only recently posted about, but the Asian Women’s Quilt Protest really is inspiring. See this Rural and Indigenous Women’s Statement on Climate Change for more background.

7. Bangladesh women’s march

Back in November 2008, around 2,000 women took to the streets of Dhaka, in Bangadesh, wearing masks of G8 leaders, to call for action on climate change. (This photo is from Oxfam’s Flickr stream)

These women, many of whom work breaking bricks or sewing garments for a living, took part in a mass rally in Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, last month [November] calling on leaders of the world’s leading industrial nations, the G8, to do more to help.

Donning masks representing G8 leaders, the crowd shouted out slogans calling on the world’s richest nations to do more to help.

Nearly 2,000 women workers from Dhaka wearing masks representing leaders of the world’s leading industrialized nations, the G8, called for richer nations to do more to help poorer countries like Bangladesh who’ve been affected by the negative impacts of climate change.

“Protect our agriculture, protect our country, protect our lives from the damaging effects of climate change”, they chanted, waving their fists to make their demands. They then took part in a short, but symbolic rally in the capital.

More photos of the protest at Caro’s Choice.

8. La Via Campesina

Women from Via Campesina have done so much activism on environmental issues that it’s hard to pick out a single example. Their women’s committee statement from back in International Women’s Day sets out where they’re coming from:

As women farmers, we demand the respect of all our rights. We demand a life with dignity and without violence, and the respect of our sexual and reproductive rights. We struggle to achieve food sovereignty and to defend family farming, the only alternative to the current food and climate crises. We want a real agrarian reform and respect for biodiversity.

9. Climate Rush

Climate Rush is a women-led direct action group here in the UK, which holds protests which hark back to the suffragette movement.

Some of their actions include a “rush” on Parliament:

On 13th October 2008 1,000 women in sashes, men in costume and colourful creatures of all shapes and forms gathered in Parliament square. We were celebrating the centenary of the Suffragette Rush. After hearing inspirational speeches from Rosie Boycott, Joy Greasely (Women’s Institute), Caroline Lucas MEP and more these Edwardian-decked women broke police lines, lightly vaulted makeshift barriers and rushed towards the doors of Parliament. Our fists banged against their closed doors and our Suffragette chants resounded through the Chamber as civil servants peered nervously through windows above – DEEDS NOT WORDS, DEEDS NOT WORDS. Our demands? No new coal power stations, an immediate stop to all airport expansion, and 80% reductions in carbon by 2050.

Since then, Climate Rush has held a protest picnic at Heathrow against the airport expansion plans, a sit in at the UK Coal Awards, they’ve glued themselves to the statue of Viscount Falkland – 100 years before, suffragette Marjory Hume chained herself to the sword on the statue.

I’ve been a bit critical of the failure of climate rush to highlight or really refer to the gendered impacts of climate change, while embracing the symbolism of the women’s rights movements – and, well, I still think that. But this is still an example of great women-led climate activism.

You can read all about their latest exploits on their website.


The latest issue of SisterSong’s magazine is focused on the links between environmental justice and reproductive justice