Feminist courage for environmental peace

Image: Illustration: Maitree Muzumdar

March 30, 2022

Women, girls, and gender minorities are uniquely and disproportionately affected by the damaging environmental impacts of conflict, while lacking and demanding access to shape the necessary decision-making in environmental governance and peacebuilding structures. Nonetheless, women activists are fashioning innovative ways to turn around the negative impacts of conflict linked-environmental damage and climate risks impacting their communities, in effect preventing future conflict.  

On 15 March 2022, during the Gendered Environmental Impacts of Conflict virtual panel on the margins of the 66th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW66), leading women activists and practitioners from Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, and Colombia shared powerful insights on the nexus of conflict, the environment, and gender. 

Setting the stage 
PAX and the Women’s League for International Peace and Freedom (WILPF), in partnership with the Government of Sweden, convened this panel under the CSW66 priority theme of “Achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes.” Ms. Matilda Hald of Concord-Sweden, representing the Swedish delegation to CSW66, set the scene in her opening remarks, stating “conflict and the environmental crisis are unfolding in a world where gender inequalities are deeply rooted. Unequal patriarchal power structures based on gender norms exacerbate the vulnerabilities of women, girls, LGBTQI persons, and further diminish the ability of marginalized communities to build resilience.” 

Hald also went on to offer a sense of hope in the direction of policies toward a broader recognition of this critical nexus. “There is a growing recognition at the policy level that the women, peace, and security agenda needs to better integrate climate and environmental risks, and there is language on this nexus in the draft CSW conclusions.” To inform decision makers and ensure their policies are targeted and effective, it is imperative to act on basis of crucial insight from women facing these challenges in their own conflict-affected communities and according to their priorities.  

The event moderator, Ms. Maha Yassin of the Clingendael Institute, then opened the panel discussion exploring various core themes and mutual priorities for political positioning driving through shared points and questions among panelists and the proactive audience, in which the sense of sisterhood in shared experiences was strong and seen as important.  

Deep impacts of violent conflict 
The impacts of conflict – including polluting water sources, decreasing or eliminating agricultural livelihoods, and increasing deforestation – cause displacement among families and communities, exposing women and girls to increased risks of sexual and gender-based violence. Ms. Diana María Salcedo López, Director of WILPF Colombia astutely framed our lived realities as systematically “patriarchal, militaristic and capitalist.” She stressed that women’s inclusion and leadership is crucial to ensuring authorities protect environmental resources and demand accountability.  

Ms. Alva Ali, activist from the Ahimsa Center Network of Nonviolent Leaders, shared how women in Syria lost livelihoods and were pushed to take extreme measures to ensure the survival of their families. “This meant women had to bear more responsibilities, but these growing responsibilities did not at all pave the way for women to sit at the decision-making table. When there are decisions to be made, women, who are the real actors on the ground, who are really shouldering the biggest responsibilities, are completely excluded from decision making and policy setting,” Ali described. Women often shoulder the majority burden for the wellbeing of their families and communities that are greatly affected by compounding impacts from conflict, climate change, and environmental damage, yet they are often systematically excluded from peacebuilding and governance structures.  

Corrupting exploitative business, military, and pollution 
Across each context discussed (Syria, South Sudan, Iraq and Colombia), panelists pointed at the environmental impact of military operations and international business exploitations that were taken corruptly and not held to account. Professor Julia Duany of John Garand Memorial University emphasized the need for South Sudan governmental policies to be put in place to hold oil companies to account for the direct environmental degradation and creation of serious humanitarian concerns for communities near oil fields. According to Duany, the oil companies “are coming from the outside, and they don’t care about the people in the area. There are no strong policies that can hold them accountable and break the current impunity… we need international support to address these issues in South Sudan”. 

Ms. Esraa Falah Hasan, an environmental activist from Iraq, raised the dilemma of communities facing conflict-linked water scarcity in a country particularly exposed to the risks of climate change. “What has historically been a water-rich country, unfortunately by 2040 Iraq will suffer from water scarcity; something that was unimaginable for Iraqis. As Iraqis, but especially as women, we felt that we had to raise our voices. We had to mobilize, which really was the spark for me to become an environmental feminist activist,” she offered. To compound this situation, in Iraq as in South Sudan, international companies have taken corrupt steps to ensure there is no recourse for environmental accountability. National oil companies equally do not respect any of environmental legislation, as they are not held to account. They act as they wish with an absolute sense of impunity.  

Spiritual connections towards peacebuilding 
During the discussion, panelists noted a lack of inclusive dialogue on spiritual connections and indigenous knowledge and practices in international conflict and environmental discourse. The panelists note that spiritual connections with local natural resources are crucial for a sense of self and community for many. Spiritual connections to land and water in South Sudan created the basis for communities to share environmental resources, including when these resources were under substantial pressure.  

These traditional sharing mechanisms can directly prevent intercommunal conflicts and need to be recognized and built on. “In Colombia, the symbolism, the spiritual relationship is set aside by policymakers and legislators and is left to the private sphere. But many communities are publicizing how important these things are to their health, security, and protection,” Diana explained. She went on to emphasize the role of women in advocating for these protections, saying “it is very important to continue to say that women and communities are opposed to simply looking at the environment as something transactional.”  

Such sentiments are also underscored by the experiences of communities in Iraq, where community members prayed and cried when forced to cut down trees they perceived to be spiritually powerful to provide heat while resources were scarce during conflict and displacement. Our trees, our wells, our homes, our land – when displaced you lose this. You lose the bond with your land. 

Women’s courage and leadership to right wrongs 
At the same time, we have seen fierce women’s leadership in environmental peacebuilding in the face of all these obstacles, including breaking through traditional gender norms and risking violent backlash. “The first step toward a conducive environment for peace should be the participation of women,” said Alva Ali. Panelists shared innovative approaches women leaders are taking to counter these detrimental impacts by demanding influence and access to decision-making, while fighting to protect land, biodiversity, and water access in their own communities. Women are leading educational activities and ecological recoveries, pioneering reforestation initiatives, and finding new mechanisms to protect water resources. Women are recovering old seeds to increase biodiversity and the vibrancy of agricultural livelihoods, literally and figuratively planting the seed for sustainable and peaceful communities.  

All panelists spoke powerfully about the need to work towards gender equality in influencing environmental peacebuilding in conflict-affected areas to ensure holistic and inclusive environmental governance, climate policy, and peace processes. In our sisterhood and communities, we must come together to share and learn from one another so that we can strengthen calls for a gendered approach in environmental peacebuilding and demand that the international community support women leaders and activists to lead decision-making and implementation for more sustainable peace. Women’s political leadership in all its diversity is key to counter the forces of patriarchy, militarism and capitalist exploitation.  

You can watch the CSW side event that took place on March 15th below:

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