Live from Rio+20, Day Three: “The Voices of Women”


See all our coverage of Rio+20 here.

The Rio+20 conference is now entering its last days, final negotiations have begun, and tensions are rising as the challenge to our issues is acute. There’ve been demonstrations, heightened advocacy, and frustration:  while we know the issues of “women, reproductive health and environmentally sustainable development” are integrated in the real world (thus essential to achieving the goals of this Earth Summit),  coming away with anything less than them being central and overarching in the final Rio+20 document would be a major disappointment, and more.  Let’s see what the last days actually bring, things can still change.  Soon the Rio+20 outcome document will be finalized and all will be heading home. Participants here are tired, distances to each meeting venue is great, shuttle-busing from one end of the city to the next. Though it’s not a total hardship, we are in Rio de Janeiro after all, beaches, palms, coastline, and the gracious Brazilian hosts.

Today I participated in an extraordinary side-event on “Rio+20 and Women’s lives: A Cross-General Dialogue” at the Ford Foundation Pavilion, co-organized by Climate Wise Women, my own organization,  Center for Environment and Population (CEP), and Columbia University’s Coalition for Sustainable Development.

This event was very intimate, it drew you in, with women’s personal stories for Rio+20 and beyond.  It featured six outstanding global women activists of different generations (from Uganda, Nigeria, Cook Islands, Mississippi/US, Philippines, and Brazil) who shared their colorful personal narratives to help us understand the cross-cutting impacts of climate change and other environmental issues on their lives.  In conversation they discussed the importance of women’s empowerment and reproductive health, and new, innovative connections among women of all ages for practical implementation of the Rio+20 outcome and beyond.   

We were honored by the attendance of two outstanding global leaders on these issues, Nilcéa Freire, Ford Foundation’s Brazil Representative and gender expert, and the Honorable Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice (MRFCJ). Tracy Mann, Director of Climate Wise Women (CW2) moderated, and guest speakers included: Ulamila Kurai Wragg, Executive Director, Pacific Gender Coalition, Rarotonga, Cook Islands; Constance Okollet, Chairperson, Osukuru United Women’s Network, Tororo, Uganda; Sharon Hanshaw, Director, Coastal Women For Change (CWC), Biloxi, Mississippi, USA; Esperanza Garcia, Co-Founder, International Youth Council, President of Philippine Youth Climate Movement and youth leader at the Columbia University’s Coalition for Sustainable Development; Esther Kelechi Agbarakwe, Nigeria, Visiting Advocacy Fellow with Population Action International (PAI) in Washington DC and a member of the “Elders+Youngers” Initiative of The Elders around Rio+20, and; Ana Paula Sciammarella, Human Rights Attorney and Member of the Network of Brazilian Women.

Tracy Mann set the scene,  emphasizing the importance of integrating formal, high-level, international negotiations like Rio+20 with the compelling personal stories of women who experience environmental impacts like climate change in their own villages and communities around the world.  She pointed out how older can teach young, and young can teach older, a theme of today’s event. As each of the women’s stories unfolded I felt like I was sitting around a campfire on a Pacific Cook Island beach or Ugandan village thatched meeting house…the women themselves were colorful in their bright gold, shocking pink, and bronze fabrics, Pacific Island and African prints, and their stories were even more so.

I felt like I was with family – my mother, grandmother or younger extended-family female member – telling me of their life’s experiences and challenges in some exotic setting, and how they personally felt about the issues now being debated at the seemingly more remote, formal Rio+20 negotiations down the road.  While these issues on the surface may seem disparate, they showed us they are not, but very much intertwined in daily life on a Pacific Island coastal village, African farming village, or American town, and that all our lives are acutely affected by global negotiations like Rio+20.  

Sharon Hanshaw, an American-south activist who lost her home during Hurricane Katrina, pointed out, “We ‘Climate Wise Women’, and all of us here, are demographically distant, but so alike” and described how her life changed since the storm, prompting her to organize and legitimize local women for a say in decisions about how climate change affects her family and community.  

She reflected on several themes the group collectively shared:

  • “Climate change has brought us women activists together, it’s our commonality for action because although demographically different, we found we are so alike.”
  • “We didn’t know that what was happening to us – the severe storms, the drought, the flooding, the change in seasonality – was actually climate change. Now we know, we are more informed about the issues, and we’ve organized to do something about it.”
  • “We used to call it weather, storms, now we know to call it climate change.”
  • “We are all one voice to change how we think about green space, and women’s equality, they go hand in hand. We know it, now we want our leaders and negotiators to know it. We are leaders too, we deserve a legitimate place at the decision-making table.”

Constance Okollet, a self-described peasant farmer from Uganda was resplendent in her opulent yellow dress, and her calm and story-telling drew you in, “Come to me, I have stories to tell” made one want to spend the day doing just that.  She talked about the stark difference between the Uganda village of her youth with distinct seasons, dense vegetation and abundant water and animals, to now, where there were no more seasons, and the plants, animals and water are sparse, gone, or far afield.  She learned that what she was experiencing for the most part was due to climate-change induced severe weather, the extremes of flooding and prolonged drought.  She decided to do something about these changes and became a grassroots women’s organizer in her village because, she said, “Climate change is gambling with agriculture, our main source of food and income, and causing spread of diseases like cholera and malaria…Our vulnerable communities need a voice, and I am the voice.”

The Honorable Mary Robinson’s message was powerful, pointing out that women’s stories like those heard today should be at the core of UN debates, such as Rio+20.  She said, “It is essential that these women’s voices come out, be part of the UN debates. They put a human face to climate change, the face of climate change is a peasant farmer from Uganda, or a slum dweller in Brazil.  Climate change is hurting our poorest communities, our most vulnerable, and they are not responsible for climate change. Those most affected are not responsible yet bearing the brunt of its impacts. She had two messages here at Rio+20: we need to come at this from a human rights issue, and these issues of importance to women don’t get raised, they need a critical mass of women who come together. That’s why this group of Climate Wise Women and those like them are critical.”

Mrs. Robinson closed by stating that, “We also need women’s leadership on climate justice, and there needs to be a connection between the two, the women leaders at the UN and as heads of state, and the rural women and villagers, so they form a dialogue and input into global decisions about sustainable development, women’s empowerment, and reproductive health.  This connection is essential to bring the reality to this Rio+20 debate, and beyond.”

Esperanza Garcia and Ana Paula Sciammarella both eloquently represented the youth perspective, showing how the younger generation was concerned and highly organized from the local to global levels, for the future, and for their children.  They shook us to attention with their energy, passion and strong messages on involving youth in broader global sustainable development processes.  Ana Paula also discussed the difficulties of displacement faced by Rio favela women by climatic events, and the need for community and a shared platform for women’s voices in the society.

Ulamila Kurai Wragg relayed the Pacific Islands perspective, as sea level rise will likely render them refugees from their small island states.  In response, she mobilized local women and formed the Pacific Gender Coalition to document their perspective, and advocate on behalf of grassroots women in the Pacific region and to the rest of the world. She stressed the traditional gender-based roles in her Cook Islands and Fiji, how their livelihoods rely on the oceans as fishermen and women, and that her peoples’ lives are at stake.  She said, “Whatever happens with climate-caused sea level rise, we have to live with it, probably move from our homes, and I want to tell our perspective.”

Ulah stressed how a formal opportunity and network through organizations like CW2 and others like them was critical, because it helped bring attention to the many women and girls who have important stories to tell and knowledge to impart.  “There are many like me,” she said, “With unheard voices, their views are important to how we govern and treat our natural resources.  And reproductive health is a big part of it, the balance of people and the oceans, the natural environment, it has to be kept. The UN process has to value the gender and traditional-based knowledge, if not, that is a strong sign that something is wrong, it does not reflect the way life really is.”

Esther Kelechi Agbarakwe, a youth peer-advocate from Nigeria, became involved because she wanted to become empowered to do something not only in her own country, but on a global scale.  She sees the strong connection between the natural environment and health issues such as reproductive health (RH) and rights, wants to advocate on addressing this connection. She said she was disappointed that RH and rights was not included in the Rio+20 document, and was meeting with country delegates and doing social media around these issues here in Rio. She’s also working with MRFCJ on inter-generational perspectives, bringing home the importance of cross pollination between young and older women, one learning from the other, and working as a team to achieve environmental sustainability and reproductive rights.

She told the BBC yesterday ,“We are more impacted than ever by the effects of climate change in all our lives, and as part of this, we also need access to reproductive health and have reproductive rights, because that provides us with choices and opportunities in our lives.  It’s all connected.”

Nilcéa Freire, of the Ford Foundation in Brazil, was compelling with a story about her 3 year old granddaughter.  She wanted to come to Rio+20 to “see the indigenous people”, and she’s learning about the environment and recycling at school.  Nilcéa said her granddaughter has many opportunities, yet that wasn’t true for girls in the Rio favelas, or the slums of South Africa or Pacific Islands. “We can’t predict the destinies for these girls in particular”, she stated, “Because we are not doing enough to include girls and women in the political power of the planet. When we waste more than half of the people of the planet, by not involving women and girls, we waste our future. That’s why we all need to work on gender-based issues, to increase these voices.”  

Nilcéa’ s closing thoughts left us with a charge:  “By Rio+40, will my granddaughter be able to say ‘We are grateful to our own grandmothers who did a good job for us at Rio+20’ – but will she able to say that?” I for one was not at all sure.

Tomorrow I will blog about a side-event on “The Demographic Dividend and Sustainable Development” co-organized by the US Agency for International Development, Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, and CEP, and look at next steps, including the UK DFID/Gates Foundation’s London Family Planning Summit in July and beyond.  Stay tuned…

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