4. Women and the Environmental Action Movement

Environmental justice broadly refers to fair and inclusive engagement in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental legislation at national and international levels. The last few decades have seen a flurry of action on environmental justice at both levels. Some countries have made important strides towards environmental justice by including the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. The global community also recognised environmental justice as a basic right in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and in the 1998 UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (the Aarhus Convention). Yet many countries, including some OECD countries, have yet to ratify the Aarhus Convention. Among those who have, the degree of implementation varies.

Children, youth, and women often lack a voice and representation in decision-making processes. This is especially the case for those belonging to vulnerable and disadvantaged societal groups. Environmental justice is a major concern in developing countries, given that large agricultural, industrial and infrastructure projects are not always subject to environmental and social impact controls. Environmental human rights defenders – often women – continue to be persecuted and harassed in many countries.

Women and youth are prominent among the leading global campaigners against climate change and to ensure effective environmental protection, across both developed and developing countries. The growth of social media has allowed local communities, grassroots movements, and civil society organisations to magnify their voice and impact. Indigenous communities have also become more assertive in protecting their right to ancestral lands and nature-based services. Women are active in the environmental justice action movement in Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which are the most vulnerable to climate change and natural hazards. Some philanthropic organisations are also very active in the gender equality and environmental justice agenda in both developed and developing countries.

Ultimately, however, the onus mainly falls on business to comply with environmental legislation and respect environmental rights and on governments to ensure that the legal and governance frameworks in the country allow for effective environmental justice, including by:

  • clearly outlining citizens’ environmental rights in relevant legislation;

  • ensuring transparency on the state of environment and the impact on human health and protecting the right to obtain information on environmental matters;

  • carrying out social impact assessments of projects that may have an impact on the environment, and including a gender dimension;

  • organising public consultations for environment-related decision-making and projects with an environmental impact, and ensuring access to o groups to such consultations;

  • facilitating both formal legal action and information mediation and redress mechanisms to protect environmental rights and compensate those affected by environmental harm.

Even though there is no internationally accepted definition, environmental justice broadly covers fair and inclusive engagement in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental legislation.1 It implies access to environment-related goods such as clean water and energy, or safe urban areas, and protection from negative environmental pressures such as air and water pollution or deforestation (distributional justice). It also translates into equal access to the decision-making process of environmental policies (procedural justice) (Brulle and Pellow, 2006[1]). It has been argued that environmental justice should also achieve a healthy environment for all (substantive justice) (Bell, 2016[2]).

The grassroots environmental justice movement started in the United States in the 1970s, when indigenous people and local communities of different racial backgrounds and of poorer socio-economic status (a majority of them women) sounded the alarm over the impact of environmental degradation on their communities. The movement was very successful in advocating for environmental protection and in engaging with the US Environmental Protection Agency and state governments to address environmental degradation at the local level (OECD, 2017[3]). Environmental justice has only recently gained ground as an issue in Europe (EEA, 2018[4]); (Lakes, Brückner and Krämer, 2014[5]), while in other parts of the developed world the movement is still in its initial stages (OECD, 2017[3]).2

Even more importantly, a 2019 Report by Front Line Defenders – an international non-governmental organisation protecting human rights defenders at risk - reported that from the 321 human rights defenders who were killed in 2018 (an increase of 67% from 2017), 77% were working on land, indigenous peoples and environmental rights. Women are very much at the forefront of the human rights’ movement worldwide (Front Line Defenders, 2019[6]). Front Line Defenders (2019) have developed special considerations for tackling gender inequality from a human rights perspective specifically as over 1 in 10 environmental defenders killed were women with two-thirds of killings taking place in Latin America (Global Witness, 2020[7]). The 2019 United Nations High Human Rights Council Resolution “[recognises] the contribution of environmental human rights defenders to the enjoyment of human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development” (UN, 2019[8]).

A 2019 Austrian study acknowledged that issues of environmental justice exist in Europe and deserve the attention of policy makers. It found that environmental inequalities mainly affected immigrants from former Yugoslavia, Turkey, and other European countries that were not EU member states prior to 2004; people with no tertiary education; and people forced to live in restricted spaces (Glatter-Götz et al., 2019[9]).

Environmental justice is a major concern in developing countries, given that large industrial and infrastructure projects are not always subject to strict environmental and social impact controls. Well-known eco-feminists, such as Vandana Shiva and the late Wangari Maathai, have been vocal on the role of women as agents of change for environmental protection. Vandana Shiva, a leader in the eco-feminist movement (Mies and Shiva, 1993[10]), a long-time advocate for the role of women in biodiversity conservation and in sustainable management of natural resources, established Navdanya, a community seed bank that provides local farmers resources, training, and other tools to advance their business and at the same time protect biological and cultural diversity (Navdanya International, 2020[11]). Wangari Maathai initiated the Green Belt Movement in Africa, linking environmental conservation to democracy and peace. Women held decision-making roles within the movement, as they were the ones holding the knowledge on local natural resources (Sandra et al., 2007[12]).

The Paris Agreement notes the importance of “climate justice”, while also hinting towards its limited ownership. Article 7.5 states that “adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, and should be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems, with a view to integrating adaptation into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions, where appropriate” (UN, 2015[13]).

Environmental human rights defenders – often women – continue to be persecuted and harassed in many countries (Front Line Defenders, 2019[14]). In developing countries, women’s rights defenders and environmentalists belonging to racialised, ethnicised and indigenous people and communities often experience sexual violence and harassment. In Russia, for instance, human rights defenders have long faced harassment, intimidation, physical attacks and arbitrary arrests because of their work (Amnesty International, 2019[15]). Some countries (e.g. Costa Rica) (OHCHR, 2013[16]) have made important strides towards environmental justice by including a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions.

The global community has recognised environmental justice as a basic right. The 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development called for citizens’ access to information, public participation and access to justice. The 1998 UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) (UNECE, 1998[17]) set the ground for civil society and citizens’ engagement to: (i) request information on the state of the environment and the impact on human heath, (ii) participate in public consultations for environment-related decision-making, and (iii) proceed to legal action when their environmental rights are at stake. In 1998, OECD Member countries adopted in the Recommendation on Environmental Information [OECD/LEGAL/0296], which recommends promoting the dissemination of information to allow citizens to assess the environmental consequences of business and other activities. References to both the Rio Declaration and the Aarhus Convention are also included in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises [OECD/LEGAL/0144], which set the framework for business conduct relating to environmental matters (OECD, 2012[18]).

In the years following, much action has taken place in the international arena. The European Union translated the Aarhus Convention into EU legislation (European Parliament and Council of the European Union, 2006[19]). In 2010 UNEP developed the Bali Guidelines to support countries in developing national legislation on these issues (UNEP, 2015[20]), and has since presented its own Environmental Rights Initiative. This Initiative brings together country representatives and other stakeholders; with a rights-based approach it enhances access to environmental information, promotes environmental justice and assists in developing a compliance culture (UNEP, 2020[21]). Further engagement on the topic has been spreading in other organisations, such as the World Bank and the UNDP (UNDP, 2014[22]), as well as at regional level, for example, through the recently agreed Escazú Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (UN, 2018[23]). The Escazú Agreement is entering into force on 22nd April 2021, after being ratified by 11 out of the 33 countries on Latin America and the Caribbean. At the same time, only 46 out of 57 states and the EU have so far ratified the Aarhus Convention (UNECE, 2020[24]), and among those, there are different levels of commitment to the principles set.3The European Commission recently proposed amending EU legislation, to facilitate access to information not only by individuals but also NGOs, as well as to provide ample time to review the information provided (EC, 2020[25]).

As women account for a larger share of the world’s poor and 80% of people displaced by the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation,4 and because of their traditional roles related to household and community responsibilities in many societies, they are more likely to be negatively affected by environmental degradation (for more information see Chapters 6 to 14). In developing countries, women and children are often the most affected by the erosion of ecosystems and climate change because of their greater dependence on traditional household and community life and small-scale farming, (wetlands dependency) as well as the unsustainable use of natural resources and the effects of climate change, such as increased frequency and intensity of droughts and floods. They are also most likely to be excluded from the decision-making process with regards to such issues.

Children, youth, and women often lack a voice and representation in decision-making processes. This is especially the case for those belonging to vulnerable and disadvantaged societal in society. As evidenced in the OECD Development Centre Social Institution and Gender Index (SIGI), women in many countries are still the subject of discriminatory laws, social norms and practices. These have implications for women’s right to own their own land and therefore to obtain, or not (ground) water concessions, and therefore to manage natural resources, but also to seek redress for environmental damage brought upon them (OECD, 2019[26]).

Women – especially of colour and from indigenous communities - have been the majority of those engaged in the environmental justice movement in the United States, among other countries, as they are more likely to experience the impact of local environmental degradation in their day-to-day individual and family lives (Unger, 2008[27]). In developing countries, women are usually most affected by the unsustainable use of natural resources and the effects of climate change, such as increased frequency and intensity of pollution (e.g. because of larger scale agricultural and mining activities), droughts and floods. They are also most likely to be excluded from the decision making process with regards to such issues.

Women in developed countries are increasingly concerned about residue of hormones, pesticides and microbiotics and plastics in the water (and agriculture products) and the impact this may have on their health. An example on endocrine disruptors shows implications for pregnancy and fertility and further reinforces the urgency of this issue (van Duursen et al., 2020[28]).

Youth and children also have limited opportunities to raise awareness on their case, as they hardly participate in decision-making processes. Beyond the formality of not being able to vote under a certain age, the OECD Youth Stocktaking Report demonstrates that young people continue to be significantly underrepresented in decision-making positions and engage less in institutionalised forms of participation such as voting and party membership, undermining their ability to shape environmental policy decisions and outcomes. While expressing lower levels of trust in governments, young people demonstrate strong awareness for inequalities and climate change. In particular, younger generations of men and women are showing growing awareness and agency to drive change towards more sustainable consumption, travel, and overall lifestyles (OECD, 2018[29]).

An intergenerational equity perspective on environmental policy is key to ensuring that benefits and costs are distributed in a fair way across generations, even among generations that are yet to be born as today’s actions affect the present and they also affect the future. Businesses and civil society, including women and youth groups, could also have an important role to play in ensuring environmental justice. There is a growing number of grassroots initiatives worldwide that seek to incorporate women and youth considerations into environment-related policies (Allen, Lyons and Stephens, 2019[30]).

In particular, women and youth are prominent among the leading global campaigners against climate change. The climate justice movement has rapidly expanded in reach and impact in recent years, as people have raised their voice to call for action against phenomena that are becoming more and more visible. Women have been calling for climate justice since the 1990s,5 and they are continuing to do so, raising awareness and campaigning for a gender-just transition.6The growth of social media has allowed local communities, grassroots movements, and civil society organisations to magnify their voice and impact. Women are raising their own voice in the debate on climate change adaptation, not only because they are more vulnerable to climate change to a greater extent (due to the gender inequalities), but also because they may have a different sense of what constitutes a bigger climate risk than men (Terry, 2009[31]). The 1992 Beijing Platform for action contains a specific chapter on environment but it has only been debated once at the Commission on the status of Women (CSW) and falls short when it comes to implementation. Explicit recommendations from the Commission on Sustainable Development have been accepted but are largely ignored (CSD 2004, CSD 17, CSD 19, etc.).

Concerns about intergenerational fairness are also mobilising thousands of young people around the globe to call for bold government action against climate change, as exemplified by the #FridaysforFuture movement. This youth movement against climate change can be traced back to 2015, when students from around the world decided to act by skipping school to protest against adults who are shirking their responsibility for “avoiding dangerous climate change” (Climate Strike, n.d.[32]). A student climate strike was organised around COP21. In 2018, Greta Thunberg camped outside the Swedish Parliament requesting action against climate change. Ever since, students strike every Friday around the world. The student movement started with scattered youth initiatives and has now grown into a global one. The 3rd global climate strike, which took place on the 20-27 September 2019, saw – according to the movement’s own estimates - 7.6 million people in 185 different countries taking action demanding “an end to the age of fossil fuels” (Global Climate Strike, n.d.[33]); (Fridays For Future, n.d.[34]). The strike was organised through social media – with banners, widgets and push notifications – and received support from more than 10,000 companies, non-governmental organisations and on-line platforms.

The 2018 OECD Youth Stocktaking Report shows that, even though young people engage less in institutionalised forms of participation such as voting and party membership, they are using digital technologies to discuss social and political issues and to mobilise others. Twenty-seven out of 35 OECD countries have, at some point, drafted a multi-year youth strategy; however, in 2018, only 14 of these countries had an operational strategy. It is worth noting that, from the 27 national youth strategies, 89% set gender-specific objectives, and 52% provide gender-disaggregated data. Even though in 67% of the strategies there is a reference to monitoring and evaluating their implementation, only a few have enacted such mechanisms, engaging with youth representatives (OECD, 2018[29]) .

A noteworthy example is Denmark, where in 2019, the Ministry of Energy, Utilities and Climate set up Ungeklimarådet, the Youth Climate Council. The Council has an advisory role to the government, submitting concrete recommendations towards adapting society to a more sustainable lifestyle, raising awareness among youth on the imminent need for action, and empowering youth by providing a way for direct participation. The Youth Climate Council has already set ambitious targets. It proposed for Denmark to become carbon neutral by 2040, it requested the integration of climate considerations in all policy spheres by moving towards sustainable production and consumption patterns; it called for a tripartite dialogue to be established between government, business and youth; and it requested for green budgeting and the integration of negative environmental, economic and social externalities based on the cost of climate-damaging behaviour (Energi-, Forsynings- og Klimaministeriet, 2019[35]).

In 2018, the Supreme Court of Colombia issued a decision in the favour of young Colombians, who sued public authorities asking the state to take immediate action to reduce deforestation rates in the Colombian Amazon to zero by 2020 (Corte Suprema de Justicia, 2018[36]). The youth claimed that increasing deforestation in Colombia is affecting the ecosystems, and therefore negatively influences their lives and futures. The legal argumentation for the case was built on the right to a healthy environment, which is provided for in the Colombian Constitution.

According to the United Nations, indigenous people constitute around 5% of the world’s population, and 15% of the world’s poor (UNDESA, 2020[37]). Based on a recent OECD Report on Linking Indigenous Communities with Regional Development, indigenous populations are mainly concentrated in rural areas, compared to non-indigenous populations, making them more susceptible to changes in the local environment (OECD, 2019[38]).

For indigenous communities, the unsustainable use of natural resources, along with clarification of property rights over land and water, is not just a question of human rights, but also of survival. Where local populations are dependent on local natural resources, climate change and economic activity are damaging existing community-based natural resources management patterns. A pointed example of this is the Arctic (Larsen and Fondahl, 2014[39]), where women have been traditionally active in ecosystem preservation and maintenance of traditional knowledge and in playing a fundamental role in environmental protection and conservation. However, changes related to increased interaction with other communities, have marginalised women’s role in natural resource management (Section 14.5.2).

Safeguarding indigenous land and water rights is also important for these communities, both to protect their cultural and language diversity, and to mitigate the effects of climate change (indigenous peoples manage forests, which act as carbon sinks) (OECD, 2019[38]). Indigenous women have been strongly advocating for sustainable and environmental issues,7 and have been active in claiming land rights. In Sri Lanka, for example, they actively requested, and managed to get most of their land back, changing initial plans for a tourist resort project. Such achievements depend critically on guaranteeing equal access to the decision-making and to land rights (Oxfam, International Land Coalition and Rights and Resources Initiative, 2016[40]).

The Native Women’s Association of Canada, an umbrella organisation for 12 indigenous women’s organisations, has argued that indigenous women are more “likely to suffer disproportionate negative environmental effects from mining activities locally” (Bond and Quinlan, 2018[41]). According to their analysis, despite the existing companies-communities agreements in place, indigenous women face a greater risk of exposure to mining-related toxic substances and climate change. Contributing factors include physiological and socioeconomic vulnerabilities, including their role in managing local land and water sources. They have also argued that the positive economic effects of the mining activities may not counterbalance the negative ones. They call for greater support for women’s engagement in the decision-making processes, by providing more vocational education and training aligned to the cultural characteristics of the peoples and of women, and by taking action against discrimination and violence against women. Indigenous women generally also have less access to education and therefore do not have equal opportunities to work in the mining sector; they are most often the victims of sexual and other types of violence and abuse from people outside their communities; and they experience some of the negative effects from substance abuse from the men occupied in the sector (Bond and Quinlan, 2018[41]).

Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which include some of the smallest and most remote countries in the world, do not constitute a homogenous group; they are at different levels of economic development, their demographics and social fabric vary. They have, however, been facing similar challenges that jeopardise their future development. The fight for climate justice has also been raised by these countries as they are influenced the most by climate change. Based on a recent OECD report, when compared with upper middle-income countries in the same income group, SIDS are 73% more vulnerable to climate change and natural hazards (OECD, 2018[42]). Combined with a lack of economic diversification and volatile growth, this vulnerability makes most SIDS highly dependent on development aid (of which 79% comes from bilateral providers and 21% from multilateral ones) and fragmented concessional finance.

Supporting the transition to low-carbon and climate-resilient choices will require access to more innovative climate finance instruments, greening fiscal reforms, and adequate debt relief mechanisms for these countries (OECD, 2018[42]). To date, gender equality and women’s empowerment has been prioritised as a component of such concessional finance; 24% of concessional finance allocated to SIDS in the period 2012-2015 had a gender component, which shows a step in the right direction. However according to the latest OECD 2017 figures, only 1.9% of all ODA actually reaches women’s organisations.

Women are among those most affected by climate change in SIDS, as they are often tasked with gathering water, fishing, or farming – all of which are highly affected by flooding and other natural hazards. Women in SIDS have been advocating for better representation in all future discussions on the future of their countries (Women’s Major Group, 2014[43]). The SAMOA Pathway agreed during the 2014 International Year for Small Island Development States, acknowledged women’s role as agents of change for sustainable development (UN, 2014[44]). The Pathway set up a Partnership Framework that enables durable partnerships for the sustainable development of SIDS. Environmental protection and climate change, and gender equality play a prominent role in the priorities set. However, in the recently released SAMOA Pathway mid-term review, even though climate and environment-related global partnerships are well underway, gender remains under-represented as a priority (Goransson, Vierros and Borrevik, 2019[45]).

Businesses have an important role to play in ensuring environmental and climate justice. For instance, the United States Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has encouraged businesses in local communities to take voluntary action based on environmental justice, examples of which include the setting up a local health clinic, public disclosure of post compliance monitoring information, and the signing of “good neighbour agreements” between local communities and business to facilitate licensing issues not covered by legislation (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2011[46]). The World Economic Forum is also engaging with businesses to realign their priorities and look beyond the bottom line and shareholder value to support profitable, sustainable growth. However, as economies continue to rely on natural resource-intensive activities, a more systematic approach is necessary.

Global Witness has reported on gender inequality in mining towns, whereby environmental resources become degraded, such as depletion of water resources, due to economic activity and which have a great effect on women’s well-being (Global Witness, 2017[47]). In the cases they looked at in Afghanistan and D.R. Congo, conflict and corruption exacerbated unequal opportunities, so women had less access to the benefits associated with the extraction of minerals, while their vulnerability increased (Global Witness, 2017[47]). A recent IUCN report supports that large-scale agricultural and extractive industries are linked to increased human rights violations which disproportionately affect women and therefore a gender-inclusive plan needs to be developed in order to tackle both the environmental and human rights issue (Castañeda Carney et al., 2020[48]).

The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises [OECD/LEGAL/0144] and related Due Diligence guidance call on the private sector to avoid contributing to adverse impacts through their own activities or to mitigate such impacts in their supply chains (see also Section 2.3.4). A gender-perspective is applied to risk-based due diligence in order to allow for reflexion over how real or potential adverse impacts may differ for, or may be specific to, women. The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct recommends that in assessing adverse impacts, businesses pay special attention “to populations that may have a heightened risk of vulnerability or marginalisation, and to different risks that may be faced by women and men” (OECD, 2018[49]). In particular, businesses should be aware of gender issues and women’s human rights in situations where women may be disproportionately impacted. The Guidelines also include specific recommendations that promote the well-being of women. National Contact Points set up in 48 Adherents under the Decision on the MNE Guidelines [OECD/LEGAL/0307] are a non-judicial mechanism providing access to remedy for stakeholders (including civil society) for bad business practices and harms committed (e.g. relating to environmental, labour or human rights standards) (OECD, 2016[50]). National regulators and businesses are increasingly making use of the MNE Guidelines and the Due Diligence guidelines. Business-led efforts include the Coalition of Business for Inclusive Growth established during the French Presidency of the G7 in 2019 (B4IG, 2020[51]).

Philanthropic institutions are also engaged in women’s empowerment and climate justice. In the context of COVID-19 and its disproportionate effect on women, foundations should reorient their priorities towards the urgent needs generated by the pandemic (Azcona et al., 2020[52]). An OECD survey on private philanthropy for development showed that only 1% of philanthropic flows for environmental protection and only 3% of flows for agriculture were gender-relate (OECD netFWD, 2019[53]) d . Examples include the Ford Foundation, which has been supporting initiatives through grants and fellowships in areas that are challenging multiple drivers of inequality. The Foundation identifies the following five drivers of inequality: (1) entrenched cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance and inclusion; (2) failure to invest in and protect vital public goods, such as education and natural resources; (3) unfair rules of the economy that magnify unequal opportunity and outcomes; (4) unequal access to government decision-making and resources; and (5) persistent prejudice and discrimination against women, people with disabilities and racial, ethnic, and caste minorities. Within this framework, the Ford Foundation supports efforts across the globe to strengthen civil society, to enhance fair and inclusive political participation, to empower women and girls, and to reduce environmental crimes associated with the natural resource sector (Davies, 2018[54]). Although philanthropic institutions seem to be more active in supporting women’s issues and organisations, here, only 2,5% of all financial support reaches women’s organisations directly (OECD netFWD, 2019[53]).


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← 1. The definition provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency is the following: “Environmental justice (EJ) is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies” (US Environmental Protection Agency, n.d.[55]).

← 2. Although some projects are still at early stages, there are some success stories. See for instance the work of Waterlex in sustainable water use and support in improving access to safe water for all (https://www.waterlex.org/).

← 3. For example, EU member states’ approaches on granting legal standing vary (Milieu Consulting Sprl, 2019[56]). In Latin America and the Caribbean progress is noted, but not in a linear way (UN, 2018[23]) .

← 4. Studies done in 2009 report that women comprise 20 million of the 26 million people estimated to have been displaced by climate change (Women’s Environmental Network, 2010[57])

← 5. WEDO, the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation, a non-governmental organisation, was founded in 1991, and has successfully put women’s rights at the forefront of international conferences and actions (https://wedo.org/about-us-2/).

← 6. See the work of WEDO. For example: https://wedo.org/what-we-do/our-programs/mobilizing-womenfor-climate-justice/; http://www.wecf.eu/english/campaigns/2018/WECF-at-COP24.php.

← 7. There are myriads examples of indigenous women’s environmental activist groups, both in countries with and without a framework linked to environmental justice, see (Herrera, 2017[58]); (Bioneers, n.d.[59]); (VERVE, 2019[60]). There are also more women getting engaged in representing their indigenous communities (Davies, 2018[54]) .

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