Women’s access to a green economy

Hanna Thomas reports back from the Rio+20 UN Earth Summit.

UN earth summit poster.jpg

This week, leaders from around the world are gathering at the Rio+20 UN Earth Summit to reaffirm principles of sustainable development and to negotiate strategies and solutions to tackle the many challenges that face us – challenges such as rights and access to water, food and land; our ever-warming climate; the lack of green and decent jobs; biodiversity and fisheries. There are so many themes being discussed here, and it is clear as day to me that the only way we will achieve any of it, is to build in women’s rights and participation from the beginning. Because women are at the frontline of all of these challenges, being disproportionately affected by climate change, making up the bulk of the agricultural workforce and being most in need of the education and skills to help them into green and decent work.

However, here in Rio, I heard from a negotiator from the G77 (developing country) bloc, that the best opportunity for African women to enter the green economy was to make earrings out of coconut shells. No jokes. Now, I’m all for women starting their own enterprises and developing the skills and confidence to support themselves. I also like the sound of coconut shell earrings as much as the next girl. But I have two points in response to this negotiator:

  • Any encouragement for women to start their own small scale micro enterprises must be backed up by calls for a social protection floor. Women who own their own businesses must have support to see them through when they or their children fall sick, or are injured, or when their business goes through a fallow period. Otherwise, we are asking women to take on massive risk and instability for themselves and their families.
  • And in any case, where is the ambition? We need to be thinking on a much larger scale. A recent ILO /UNEP report outlines how just 2% investment of GDP could create up to 60 million green jobs over the next two decades, in sectors such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, transport, recycling, fisheries and reforestation. This is where we should be looking. After all, there is only so much demand for coconut earrings.

The problem, of course, is that to create opportunities for women in this area, global governments would have to tackle a whole boatload of other issues – women´s access to education, childcare and right to self-determination over their sexual and reproductive health. We would have to make connections between what is good for women, the economy and the planet. World leaders aren’t there yet.

During negotiations here in Rio, the Holy See (who have UN observer status and who represent all of 800 old white men in the Vatican) have moved to delete any mention to women’s rights to reproductive, sexual or maternal healthcare from the text. The Vatican displaying misogynistic tendencies is not surprising, but they were also supported in this effort by the G77 developing country bloc, who represent 132 countries and who stated in the plenary hall that they didn’t recognise the term “gender equality”.

Thankfully, these terms have since made it back into the text, but it signals that the new green economy might be just as unequal, exclusive and unjust as the one we have now. We must fight to make the connections between basic women’s rights and the environment. We must ask how we will leverage women’s vital sustainability contributions and climate solutions at speed and scale at the local and global level. We must bring environmentalists and economists into the struggle for women’s right to education, childcare and healthcare.

The complexities of the environmental, economic and climate crises require systemic change in how we are living with each other and our Earth. This change will only be achieved through full representation of women in decision-making processes, and deploying necessary resources for women to aid in implementing economic and environmental solutions.

Anything less just won’t cut it. Not even coconut earrings.

The photo at the top of the page shows a handmade banner with a woman’s face in the middle, handprints on either side in red and yellow paint and the words “The future begins with the decisions we make in the present” painted in white.