Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Sixty-Sixth Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, UN Women side event
How do you see the connections between climate change, environmental degradation, and human rights? In which ways will the deteriorating environmental conditions make it more difficult for women and girls to enjoy the full range of their human rights?
Thank you for posing these critical questions.
The triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss represents the single greatest human rights challenge of our era.
As each day passes, our collective delays and inaction in addressing this crisis bring us closer to alarming global catastrophe.
Concrete action – not just empty words – is paramount for our very survival.
Last year, the Human Rights Council adopted a historic resolution recognising the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
A healthy environment - now and in the future - is the foundation for the enjoyment of numerous human rights, including the rights to life, housing, health, decent work, water, culture and development.
It is about protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.
How are women and girls particularly affected? The full force of the climate crisis is borne by those who face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, including gender-based discrimination.
Women and girls who live in poverty. Women and girls who are on the move. Women and girls with disabilities. Older women.
Many smallholder farmers are women whose livelihoods and food sources are at risk due to climate change. Yet climate-smart agriculture practices remain out of reach for far too many – women often have unequal access to land and financial resources and can be time-poor from taking on the bulk of family care responsibilities.
When families’ livelihoods are threatened by climate change and environmental degradation, girls are frequently the first to be pulled out of school. They may also be at risk of child, early and forced marriages or trafficking.
Water scarcity poses yet another threat, with women and girls often having primary responsibility for water collection. The longer they spend walking to increasingly distant water sources, the more they may be exposed to sexual and gender-based violence.
And, extreme weather events and increased incidence of vector-borne diseases such as malaria, combined with unequal care burdens, can place women under disproportionate pressure to support their families.
COVID-19 has only served to magnify all of these challenges.
Today, let us remember that women and girls are not only victims. They are also agents of change.
Across the world, women and girl human rights defenders, in all their diversity, are courageously leading efforts to protect our environment.
Women scientists are at the forefront of endeavours to find responses to climate change and environmental degradation.
Increased representation of women in political and business leadership has led to intensified measures for reducing carbon emissions.
Thanks to a collaboration with UNEP and UN Women, my Office has recently published Key Messages on Human Rights, the Environment and Gender Equality which highlight the key human rights obligations and responsibilities of States and other actors with respect to gender and the environment.
These obligations and responsibilities must be realized.
What matters today is that we protect and promote the full range of women’s and girls’ rights – including their economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights - in all spheres of life.
What matters is that all societies take on board the full contributions of everyone to achieve changes for social justice, for human rights, and for our planet.
You have spoken about the need for a human-rights based economy. What do you mean by that, and how do you see the prospects for making progress towards that and gender equality, in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?
Let me begin by defining what we mean by a human rights-based economy. Put simply, it is an economy that not only prioritises economic growth, but that has people and their human rights as its core focus.
As a former Head of State and Minister of Defense and Health in my home country of Chile, and now as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I have seen first-hand the impact of economic policies on the well-being of communities and the development of entire countries.
Economies which put human rights at their centre are the most prosperous economies. They are economies which choose to invest in social spending essential to protect and promote fundamental human rights, such as the rights to health, social protection, education, food, water, housing, development and a healthy environment.
We need to follow this path. It means that States must guarantee the minimum essential levels of the enjoyment of human rights for all - without discrimination - even in times of crisis. They must mobilize the maximum available resources to do this. They must focus on progression, and should not allow retrogression.
As we move into recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Governments must not forget their responsibilities, especially to the people who have been left furthest behind.
As we know, the pandemic has laid bare stark inequalities and deep discrimination. It has clearly revealed how, in the absence of strong social protection systems, global crises disproportionally affect those who were already left behind, including women.
But we can recover from this crisis if we choose to emphasise human rights in our response.
In the words of feminist economists, a human-rights based economy is inevitably a feminist economy. Our economic policies must therefore contribute to women’s rights and gender equality. They must include gender-responsive budgeting and tax policies. They must better recognise the care economy and redistribution of care work. And they must ensure women’s equal participation and their right to decent jobs.
Overall, we need to step up public investment in health, education and social protection systems. And we need to ensure that women, girls, men, boys and people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics all benefit from this investment.
During the deliberations that led to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals, Member States expressed profound concern about rising inequalities, including gender inequality, and the need to build more inclusive economies.
A human rights-based economy will build resilience of societies against future shocks. It will strengthen social cohesion and contribute to the prevention of conflicts and instability. Women, as half of humanity, must play an integral role in both contributing to such an economy and benefitting from it.