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Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders call for urgent action to "save our homes."

13 December 2018


For the small island nations in the Pacific, climate change is not a theoretical risk, it is an ever present reality. Rising sea levels have meant loss of land, leaving some countries having to contemplate where to move residents. Climate change has led to more extreme weather, resulting in storms that have devastated villages and ripped apart communities that were able to weather storms in the past.


It has had a big impact on women living in the area, exacerbating ingrained patterns of inequality, said human rights activists and climate justice campaigner Tamani Rarama from Fiji.

“Gender plays a pivotal role in the effects and impact of such degradation,” she said. “Our culture is deeply entrenched with cultural and faith beliefs that often in many ways accommodate systematic barriers which limit women’s and other genders participation. Violence in its many forms also rise during such crises.”

Rarama is a young transgender climate justice activist, who works with the Alliance for Future Generations in Fiji. She has worked on the issue on climate and gender justice for the last four years and represented Fiji last year at the 23rd Conference of Parties on climate change in Bonn, Germany.

For her, being a human rights defender is a natural extension of her personal push to claim her identities. As a transgender woman living in a traditional, patrimonial society, Rarama said she has had to learn resilience and how to be her own champion, something she teaches to others in workshops.

“My experiences alone have allowed me to see myself as a champion of my rights and the rights of those who need a voice,” she said. “The levels of injustice as an indigenous person, as a non-gender, non-conforming person, have been my greatest influence. But I am doing what needs to be done to help elevate people’s lives as much as mine for a better future.”

Women affected more

The impacts of climate change have multiple and complex effects on societies and individuals’ human rights, said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. When people lack access to food, water, shelter and other necessities, they are deprived of their basic rights. And the resulting tension are likely to lead to violence and other negative outcomes. Women bear the brunt of these outcomes.

Women and girls are often most likely to be exposed to problems associated with climate change induced disasters because situations of crisis “exacerbate pre-existing gender inequalities and compound the intersecting forms of discrimination against women,” stated  General Recommendation 37 by the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

“We cannot ensure a sound future for our planet if we continue to ignore the inequality of women and the heavy burden of discrimination, which holds back so many women,” Bachelet said in a statement at COP 24 in Poland. “Gender-responsive climate action will support a just transition and promote sustainable development, including the fight against poverty.”

Gender responsiveness a silver lining

The best way to help women and girls better adapt and address to climactic changes is to ask them what they need, said Lucielle Paru. Paru is a community leader and human rights defender from Papua New Guinea, who has been advocating against deep sea mining and for land rights and women’s rights in her country.

“Women are speaking up more now,” she said. “We have had our men manage and that is not to say they don’t manage well, but we have found that they have made wrong decisions. Men have failed us. It is time to allow women to speak. It is time to accept that women do think more. We are more aggressive when it comes to protecting things like our children, our home, our land. It would be good to be allowed to do that.”

Recognizing the need to better represent the needs and view of women into climate change discussions and actions, United Nations Member States agreed to a gender action plan (GAP). The plan strengthens gender-responsive climate policies by focusing on priority areas including capacity building, gender balance and strengthening the integration of gender consideration within the work of UN Climate bodies.

For Nazhat Shameen Khan Ambassador of Fiji to Switzerland and her country’s chief negotiator during COP 23, actions to address climate change also offer an opportunity to address entrenched discrimination against women. Women’s voices have long been left out of the dialogue on climate change and possible solutions, particularly on the small island and costal nations hardest hit by the issue.

“One of the most significant things about this combination of gender and climate action is the potential for climate action to be transformative,” she said. “Climate change is a new challenge for us, but it is not business as usual. In my view, gender responsiveness is a silver lining in the cloud of climate change.”

Rarama from Fiji has a message for all those conducting negotiations on climate change during the COP 24 currently taking place in Poland: take action, and take it now.

“We don’t have 30 years of their negotiations and lobbying to save our homes,” said Rarama. “This is a humanitarian crisis that needs urgent action and attention just as much attention that is given to wars, etc. The people of the Pacific contribute less to the carbon emissions however we are most affected because of capitalism and bigger nations.”

 13 December 2018