Robinson – “Women’s leadership is needed more than ever”

Mary Robinson

Outspoken and often defiant, Mary Robinson has never been afraid to ruffle feathers. At home, in Ireland she was known as a champion of women’s rights, campaigning for the liberalisation of divorce and abortion laws in a strongly Catholic country. Her tenure as UN human rights commissioner, from 1997 to 2002, was at times controversial. She angered governments around the world – China, Russia and America included – with her unflinching criticism of their human rights records. But she is also credited with widening the brief of the commission to include ‘softer’ issues like food security, health care and the right to safe drinking water. After resigning from the UN, partly as a result of pressure from the Bush administration, Robinson continued her human rights work with Realizing Rights, the advocacy organisation she founded.

Now she has turned her attention to climate change and, through the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, is emphasising the need for a rights-based approach to the problem – one which seeks redress for those who, having contributed least to the pollution of the planet, are bearing the brunt of its impacts; and one which recognises that women will suffer more than men. She spoke to Global shortly after visiting communities in Bangladesh that are already experiencing the devastating effects of global warming, and explained why she believes that women need to be involved at all levels in the climate change negotiation process.

Global: Your Foundation is working to secure justice for victims of climate change. Please could you explain what is meant by a ‘climate justice’ approach to global warming?

Mary Robinson: Climate justice offers a strong effective human centred approach for action on climate change because it acknowledges that some of the countries and populations that are suffering the most are the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

I’ve just returned from Bangladesh and I travelled to Koyra in the Delta region and saw the devastation caused by cyclone Aila in 2009 – houses were destroyed and the embankments have not been properly mended so that the saltwater has come onto the land. The rice that used to grow there won’t grow anymore and there is no more freshwater fishing. Already, these are the kind of dramatic impacts of climate change on people who had have made no contribution to the problem but who are suffering greatly, and therefore we need a strong justice approach that builds on what is already in the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] framework – common but differentiated responsibilities.

Given that you are promoting a justice approach to climate change why do we need to have a gender specific response?

The impact of climate change has different effects on women and men, and indeed children. The impacts are greater on women because they aggravate situations of poverty – [it is] women who have to go further for water, who have to cope with the house being flooded or intense drought so that there is no food security. I saw this visibly in Bangladesh. For the women the impacts were very severe because their homes had been destroyed, the income that they had from growing vegetables and other crops was destroyed, so they were learning a different method of fishing. But as well as coping with learning new farming and fishing methods, the women had to cope with the devastating impact on the household and community. This was very evident.

And so we believe that a strong gender perspective recognises the reality that the impacts are worse for women, in many, many cases. And that women leaders will tend to have a more practical approach to trying to address the way in which we can support communities affected by climate change, with more emphasis on support for adaptation.

Your Foundation is working with groups like Climate Wise Women who are effecting change in their local communities. Can you tell me about the work they are doing in this area?

Climate Wise Women is a group of knowledgeable grassroots women who came together as climate witnesses before Copenhagen [COP 15]. Some of these women stayed together and, in a sustainable way, continue to voice their situations. If you take for example one of the Climate Wise Women, Constance Okollet from Eastern Uganda, a mother of seven, she describes how when she was growing up there were normal seasons. They were poor, but they had food security and they were reasonably happy in their village. Then, over the past four or five years, there have been no seasons as such – there are heavy rains followed by six or eight months of drought followed by flash floods again so that the rain runs off [the land] and destroys houses and schools. Constance formed a group of women, Osukura United Women, to try to help the community cope. At first she thought it was God that was responsible for this very bad turn of events and then she learned through the Oxfam-organised Climate Tribunal, that in fact it wasn’t God, it was the lifestyles of the rich part of the world that were causing the problem.

What is your Foundation doing to encourage women’s leadership in the climate change negotiation process?

Women’s leadership is needed in this century more than ever and the issue of climate change and the need to support the values of climate justice is one in which women can play a very significant role. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, my Foundation brought together a network of women leaders from the grassroots and NGOs and we prepared for a side event in Cancun on 4 December [2010]. There were about 150 women from different parts of the world, speaking vividly about the need to have a strong gender dimension in the climate change discussions, at all levels, including financing and technology as well as mitigation and adaptation.

Two days later my Foundation co-hosted, with the government of Mexico, a meeting of women ministers and part of the leadership at Cancun – they included the [COP 16] Chair, Patricia Espinoza, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Mexico; the Secretary General of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres; the Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard; and the Ministers of Denmark and Ecuador. It showed that women are actually in the top level of decision-making and if they can be active in ensuring a strong gender dimension then this can change some of policies, in particular by having more of a balance between support for mitigation and support for adaptation, which in fact was reflected in the discussion in Cancun.

Over the course of your career do you think that there has been progress in giving women more of a say in key political decision-making? What more needs to be done to ensure that women operate on an equal footing with men in national and international politics?

I think there have been improvements but it’s never a secure or steady line of progress – from time to time there is regression in the number of women in an individual country that are elected to parliament or that serve in the cabinet. But many countries find that quota systems help, whether at local and national elections or,as is increasingly the case in European countries, quotas of women participating on the boards of companies in the private sector. That can help to show that there is a significant pool of capable women. I so often hear the view expressed, “We’d love to appoint a woman but there isn’t a qualified one.” This usually means that they haven’t really looked for qualified women.

There seem to be a number of women engaged at the very highest level in the UN climate change process.

How do you think their involvement might impact on the outcome of discussions?

I don’t think it will automatically [have an impact], as perhaps it should. I was struck when these women ministers and senior officials of the UNFCCC and EU came to our meeting, they said, one after the other, that this was the first opportunity they’d had in Cancun to focus on gender issues. Which is why we feel it’s important to organise a sort of bottom- up and top-down approach – groups of women leaders who are informed of the need to have a stronger gender dimension, stronger emphasis on adaption and more recognition of the different impacts on women and men.

Given that the international community is struggling to find any consensus on how to tackle climate change, how confident are you that they will work for a justice or gender based approach to the problem?

The approach that we are adopting in the Foundation is to act as kind of catalyst and convenor to encourage a much stronger gender perspective. There are networks that have been involved in trying to engender the process for quite some time without much success. So we feel the need to strengthen the focus on practical approaches and to ensure that there is a better balance between mitigation and adaptation. There needs to be more focus on the impacts [of climate change] on communities, which create burdens, in particular, for women, and on ensuring that right across the board – in the transfer of technology and when looking at financing – women are involved. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we believe that women can make a difference in Durban [COP 17] and beyond.

About the author:

Former President of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


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November 8, 2011 10:27 am

This interview states volumes for women as well as men around the world. It needs to be noted that the conditions described above covers a wide range of issues that we encounter today, may it be climate change or environmental degradation due to people initiated wars, and people encroaching on lands where animals such as elephants are displaced. These conditions affect girl children and women alike where they don’t have safe and protected access to basic facilities and resources, among them are schools (knowledge and skills, exposure to opportunities) entrepreneurship (economic sustainability and life skills) health (quality of life in terms of holistic- health, emphasis on mental health) as well as entire communities becoming victims of forced migration (people up-rooted, encountering adverse conditions, the long lists that we now know by-heart! Yes, I do agree wholeheartedly with the concluding remark given in Ms Mary Robinson’s interview: “There’s a lot of work to be done, but we believe that women can make a difference …”


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