Today marks International Women’s Day. For generations women everywhere have been advocating for change, championing women’s rights and raising awareness of gender inequalities. That’s worth celebrating every day, not just on International Women’s Day.
With the IPCC having released their ‘bleakest warning yet’ on the impacts of climate breakdown earlier this month, recognising and enabling women’s climate leadership is crucial to achieving the rapid, transformative action we need.
Over the past year the voices of women, especially those from the Global South and from Indigenous communities, have become an increasingly prominent force in the climate movement. At COP26, a cohort of young activists took to the streets demanding more urgent action, displaying the ambition and leadership which the official talks so sorely lacked. Furthermore, there was an increasing recognition from the public in the vital role that Indigenous communities play in protecting our planet, yet they stand to suffer the most from the climate crisis.
To mark International Women’s Day, we share stories from inspiring Indigenous women who are spearheading the climate movement and leading us towards a better future.
Txai Suruí - Brazil
Txai Suruí, a climate activist from the Brazilian Amazon, made her appearance on the world stage at the COP26 opening summit – the only Indigenous woman to do so. Standing alongside world leaders, her inspiring speech told the story of how deforestation and illegal mining is leading the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and its Indigenous communities.
Daughter of Almir Suruí, a prominent Indigenous leader in Brazil, Txai became an environmental rights advocate because of her parents’ activism. She was also the first woman in her community to study law and is training to become an environmental lawyer.
Yet she knows all too well the struggles women face when it comes to the fight against corporations, governments, and sometimes even your own community.
“Any woman knows that wherever you are it is going to be difficult, people will also try to discredit you because of your age, by saying ‘you are too young, you need to learn’.”
Women have multiple roles – on the one hand they are the holders of traditional knowledge and culture, and some are even leaders of their community; and on the other hand, they are often suppressed within their own communities and families, excluded from land ownership and discussions about the use of their land resources.
Yet, this has not deterred Txai who believes that: “The healing of our planet will happen thanks to and through the wisdom of Indigenous women. It is crucial that we are heard because we are the ones suffering the most with the climate crisis and despite that, we're fighting hard.”
Helena Gualinga – Ecuador
Helena Gualinga comes from a family and community led by women. Her mother is the leader of the Indigenous Kichwa Sarayaku people of the Ecuadorian Amazon – and for this community it is women who are leading the fight to preserve the Amazon and their traditions.
Like Txai, Helena is no stranger to growing up in a place where community members are facing displacement and having their homes taken away from them. In the year she was born, oil companies came into her community without consent.
Her childhood was marked by her community’s struggle against big oil companies. Now she wants to use her voice to speak about these issues, not just for her community but for Indigenous women.
“When it comes to Indigenous women – that is the most silent death, the death of an Indigenous woman.”
As highlighted in our report Last Line of Defence, women defenders are standing up against corporate destruction, yet too often they are also subjected to gender-specific threats, including sexual violence.
At COP26, Helena was one of a small number of Indigenous people who managed to get to Glasgow for the conference. On the streets protesting alongside other activists, she said: “We all share the same emotions of anger and frustration, of sadness, pain, to see people around us, losing loved ones, and losing sisters, fathers, brothers. A lot of the women here, that are here to protest, that are here to share their stories with you, have experienced that.”
“It’s so scary to think that we have all these numbers and we have everything and still there is no action and there is nothing that inside there [the COP26 summit] that is being discussed to protect the people who are actually protecting our lands, who are actually protecting the Amazon and our ecosystems... they should be here to listen to the shoutings of the women here.”
It’s a global fight
Txai’s and Helena’s stories are two of millions of similar stories – there are many more women and girls leading grassroot movements across Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In South Africa, Malungelo Xhakaza is continuing her mother’s fight against a powerful coal mining company who are destroying the Somkhele community, located next to Africa’s oldest nature reserve. Her mother Fikile Ntshangase – a leader, teacher and mother – was murdered for leading a campaign against the expansion of a coal mine that was polluting their land. They thought her death would silence them, but instead it has motivated Malungelo to keep her mother’s fight alive.
And in India, Alice Barwa has been protesting against the destruction of the Hasedeo forest in central India and clearing the forest’s Indigenous people.
So, as we mark this day, let’s stand in solidarity with all women who are shouting loudly and leading the movement against climate breakdown.