Aliya Bashir in conversation with Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

What happens when the right voices aren’t at the table of this century’s most important discussion? Aliya Bashir spoke with former Executive Director of UN Women and Deputy President of South Africa Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the Women Deliver 2023 Conference about the pressing need to have more women at the heart of climate change planning and negotiations.

Aliya Bashir: Climate change is a growing crisis - with increasing urgency to have an effective climate response. Yet, little attention has been paid to gender-responsive climate and environmental action. What are some of the most effective strategies and initiatives to advance gender equality in the context of climate action?

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: I think it is really important to give climate education to women at a very young age. Women understand the negative impacts of climate change on themselves, their families, and their communities, much easier than men. They are willing to take action because they know that to defend a family, a community is going to fall on them. I think one of the areas which failed women is not forecasting our education on women. We have to make sure that  women know the facts and that  they too start knowing it at a very early age so that they grow with the knowledge and conviction on what to do in this situation. As you have seen, many of the movements on climate change have been very vibrant, and have a lot of prominent young women, school girls, and young girls who pave the way forward. So, education, education and education are the keys.

Aliya: Based on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is evident that people who are already the most vulnerable and marginalized will also experience the greatest impact [of climate change]. How important are women’s voices to be heard in the development, planning and funding of climate change initiatives?

Phumzile: Right now, women are not involved in the planning, and hardly 10 percent of women are involved in such negotiations. The one thing that we have to fight for is representation, so that the voices of women are at the heart of discussions. This is why education is important - because we have to have women who will know how to represent the issues once they are in the position of representation. So, pressure on our governments and the people who nominate and elect the people that lead and participate in such kinds of discussions is quite important. You just see the pictures of COP (an international climate meeting held every year by the UN), it’s just men, men and men and what kind of results do we have? It’s not a very impressive outcome. I think if there would have been more women’s voices dominating the climate discussions, every COP that we have had would have come with different results.

Aliya: Do you mean to say that both education and representation are interlinked and complement each other?

Phumzile: Absolutely, yes. Because we don’t want to be represented by people who don’t know our [women’s] issues, and we don’t want to deploy people unfairly on a subject that they are not proficient on. So, we have to do these things at the same time continuously at the high plan of women. Lots of women who also participate in climate change discussions themselves don’t necessarily understand the subject very well, but because mediocre men are deployed to do complex tasks that they don’t understand and they can’t say they don’t know the subject well - they will take the tasks and end up with crazy results.

Aliya: There is overwhelming evidence about the health impacts of climate change. But, countries are not delivering an adaptation response proportionate to the rising risks their populations face. Do you think gender matters in climate change adaptations?

Phumzile: This makes me think of the developing countries. Many countries have got lots to deal with and they are taking time to grasp the risks of climate change. I don’t think that the details of the science are obvious to them. So, the education that we have talked about has to be present when we are talking about leaders, just as much as we are talking about grassroots. All of us need more education on climate change and to the extent that health practitioners in most of our countries when they get training, climate change is a priority. I imagine that in most health sciences, in most medical schools, people were not learning about climate change and what it will do to their health, and their societies.

But, right now everything in the world is changing, technology is changing, and we have to reimagine education for now. Because the education that we got in the past is not appropriate for the future. When we went to school, we were not thinking about what will happen to artificial intelligence. And, that education is not only for the people who are building the technology, it is for all of us. Same thing about climate change and our health. But, currently, there is no way where this is a subject that we learn about. So, we have to recognize how much the situation has changed and the investment of the resources we have, to target these things that we are addressing now. Otherwise, it is like training someone to ride a horse in a situation where they will be racing against a car - we are in such type of situation now. Patriarchy and its deprioritization of women make it worse. Even when we learn about health, it is not given that we usually plan how it affects men and women differently. So, we need also a feminist view in our education so that the issues that affect women and girls are also highlighted.

Aliya: How do women’s experiences with climate change impact their sexual and reproductive health decision-making rights(SRHR), behaviour, and outcomes, especially for the vulnerable, poor and underrepresented communities?

Phumzile: It affects to the extent that climate change makes women and communities vulnerable in terms of housing, and the food that they eat. We are seeing a crisis as far as food security is concerned. For instance, when women are left without the capacity to plan when and how many children they want due to lack of access to prevention of pregnancy, they end up with many children and they take lots of pain and face malnourishment and poverty in their families.

When there is a drought in a community, one of the tendencies that go up is child marriage. Girls are sacrificed so that their families can get food from somewhere. So, it is a vicious cycle that is introduced. I think overall, government policies have to determine and define how these financing institutions manage and distribute finances. For example, the government should be able to say in a banking institution that you will have to make sure that this percentage of the money that you lend goes to climate change-related activities. This will also force people to be innovative if they will see there is a way to finance and support their projects.

Aliya: What are some of the actions needed to include climate finance, loss and damage and other transformative solutions to managing the impacts of climate change, particularly those who are least able to adapt?

Phumzile: Obviously, it is a very unfair situation that we are in. The fact is that so much of the suffering that comes with climate change is going to those who are not responsible for its causes. Honestly, I don’t know what to say about that because we are not getting somewhere with this challenge. Rich countries continue to treat poor countries as if they are having equal responsibility. The debts of developed and less developing countries have been getting higher and higher. The rich people have brought misery to the poor countries and as these people try to develop, and take their next step forward, they are told to pay an equal price. This is a crazy and unfair situation. It is almost like how colonialism works, people sailed across the sea to take someone’s country, someone’s land and authority and later oppress them in their own countries. Now, the rich people have changed the planet for us and they are coming back to us and expect us to pay for the damage.     

Aliya: There are lots of discussions, campaigns and deliberations by the advocates for women-led climate justice. Why is women’s leadership important and what will the world look like if women are represented in climate action decision-making? 

Phumzile: We need women’s voices, women’s presence because these are the voices we haven’t had. These are the voices that have not been prominent in the discourse. So, we have to hear these voices. I think that the presence of women’s voices would address the issues that cause food insecurity, women would never allow the deterioration of natural resources, exploitation of fossil fuels or the degradation of soil. Women understand the repercussion of all such devastation. It is on women, once it goes wrong. When we think of extreme weather conditions such as droughts, floods or heatwaves, women are the ones who are holding families together. They understand the difficulties of surviving in those conditions. So, they will want to stop a situation wherever they can that takes away all the power from them to have a meaningful life. Ultimately, this reckless behavior means that we are taking the power from ourselves to have a fulfilling life. We are now going to have a life where we are just trying to survive every single day.