Over the past few decades, the countries of the world have gone through different and myriad manifestations of the environmental and climate crisis. In the Global South, we have discovered that there is a direct correlation between worsening climatic conditions and the stability of the modern state. We have had to question the lawmaker’s loyalty to the political commitments enshrined in national constitutions. We are concerned about the avalanche of political and economic troubles we face every day because the environmental conditions upon which our national economies were founded are constantly declining. We are grappling with how to affirm our dignities and identities in the climate crises - especially women’s identities which have for a long time taken shape in social situations and settings that are unsympathetic to their interests.
The need to deal with the current climate crisis in the Global South, particularly in Africa, has resulted from socio-structural problems that arose during the process of European colonization, as African political economies were treated as mere appendages of the West. The dynamics of the colonial regime were such that they proceeded to separate men from women through the sequential processes of forced labor for colonial projects, male urbanization, mining and resource extraction, and rural cash cropping. Noteworthy is that the roles of women in many colonized African societies were disrupted by colonial control over agricultural activities, which allowed men to dominate a social arena where gender complementarity had formerly reigned.
A little over two years ago, my team and I embarked on a project that required us to conduct street interviews on blue-collared women workers living in Accra. The primary objective was to understand their motivations and aspirations. Salima, at the time of the interview, was a porter who lived at the lorry station and worked in the market located in the heart of Accra. At twenty-one years old, Salima was a small-scale farmer and a high school graduate. However, the farming business was no longer profitable enough to support herself and her family so she migrated to the capital, in search of a well-paying job. Without the necessary qualifications and connections, Salima soon found herself at the mercy of the elements in a dog-eat-dog capital. Indeed, Salima’s story is nothing special. In fact, this is the personal experience of a great number of young women living in the capital cities of Ghana. Why am I telling you this? It is because I found hope.
I found hope in a country heavily populated by the marginalized who experience climate change impacts on a daily. Any person would have given up in the face of crisis. Any person would have lost all sense of a better future. Yet when I asked Salima what kind of future she envisioned, she replied, “I want to become successful and go back to my hometown. I have to go back for the people I left at home”. The strong sense of commitment African women have to their ethnic communities tends to let them conceive of gender roles as their contribution to communal development rather than individual betterment.
Salima’s words are the refreshing perspective, the direction we need in this climate crisis. We need to provide the necessary adaption measures needed to give a sense of purpose for those marginalized by their identity and location. Because it is the marginalized who have the greatest sense of community. And it is this sense of community that is necessary to transform the horror that is the climate crisis. The reality unfortunately is that women are far removed from those resources and measures that should be aimed at improving resiliency or adapting to climate impacts. It is because of this that African women continually bear the brunt of the constant socio-political crisis so much that it has become the status quo.
The evidence is apparent in the lower educational levels for women across the continent, the continuing presence of women in agricultural and other rural activities, and in the higher levels of female malnutrition and maternal and infant mortality. Western economists and political advisers have used the statistical evidence of African women's status as proof of the absence of "women in development". A situation which I believe is contradictory given that western governments continually place the burden of mitigation and reversal of climate damage on governments in the Global South. In fact, mitigation measures are twice more likely to receive financial aid than adaptation measures. This is why I think the climate crisis is worsening by the minute.
Colonialism may have ended on paper yet where I come from, we have not ceased to be recipients of influences from without. The forces molding Africa are foreign and not native. We owe our progress to the ghosts of colonization and to the socio-political whims of the Western world, to the hands of Western religion and the manipulations of the Eastern bloc. Our social engineering is by ideologies we cannot relate to and we are trained to defend philosophies that are recycled hand-overs from our colonial masters. Just like undigested food causes constipation, we feed on euro-centric ideals which, being insensitive to local needs and ideals, becomes the proverbial thorn in our flesh, hindering sustainable development.
The socio-economic climate as it exists now is such that states, corporations, and individuals continually place aggressive demands on the environment to supply the economies of the Global North. Multinational corporations systematically arrange their activities to benefit wealthy shareholders. There is downward pressure on wages and workers to maximize profit. There is massive deforestation due to resource exploitation, urban expansion, and a model of agriculture in particular, which causes about 30% of all Greenhouse Gases causing global warming and climate change. There is the subordination of human and environmental values and the domination of the capitalist machinery.
The climate crisis of the 21st century is no longer just about environmental concerns. The climate crisis is a political issue. The idea that the climate crisis is a political issue is premised on the fact that the adverse impacts of environmental issues are not felt equitably among the citizens of the world. The gravest consequences of environmental challenges are experienced by those already marginalized by their identity and social status.
In Ghana, it is estimated that 70% of people in agriculture and related activities are women. These women farmers are mostly smallholder farmers whose agricultural activities are guided by ecological principles of less dependence on external inputs and synthetic agrochemicals thereby protecting the environment. They practice agroecology and in spite of the lack of government support, their agricultural activities continue to better preserve biodiversity, reduce deforestation, promote carbon sequestration and reduce GHG emissions. Because African women depend heavily on the natural environment for their livelihoods, they make efforts to protect these resources against destruction.
Women farmers have come together as a social movement with support from ActionAid Ghana and are advocating strongly for a system change in agriculture to reduce its carbon footprints, demanding for bolder climate action from their government, and positing that agroecology should be at the center of government’s climate action. African women are seeking to redefine their roles in ways that allow them a new culturally attuned activism. This redefinition involves rallying communal power and the strength of collective action to drive change. I believe and strongly so that when African women control their roles and identities in society, we would have solved the root of the climate crisis.
This is because women have better attachment and sensitivity to the environment. It is therefore important that the external foreign cooperation provisions in frameworks such as the European Green Deal which is the EU policy on climate and environment, and it’s supposed to frame everything the EU is doing, including its development policy, are appropriate to the key role of women and aligned with their efforts in preventing the climate and environmental breakdown. There is hope for the future. We have hope because the future is for African women.
About the Writer
Abena Awuku-Larbi is a Lawyer, Writer, and a Senior Associate Trainer with ActionAid Ghana's Global Platform. Her work centers on Gendered Violence and Climate Justice. She believes that climate justice for Ghanaian women means asserting a sense of independence, tearing down colonial, exploitative systems, and recreating a world that will no longer be hostile to their existence.