Young women, young feminists, young trans and non-binary people from across Africa have been leading the charge for climate and environmental justice for a long time. We face stigma and discrimination with courage and determination. Here, we share some of our stories.
Thokozani Amanda Chimasula | Malawi
When climate change dehumanizes a young girl
Losing both her parents at the age of 10 was a nightmare. Being the eldest of five children, she was left with the huge responsibility of taking care of her siblings. Living in an area that explicitly declared its vulnerability to climate change, drought and food insecurity experienced by the young girl every day. Martha Banda* was born in 1997 and comes from T/A Nazombe, Phalombe. As a young girl, she was burdened to look after her siblings in the harshest realities of climatic change. She acquired land from her parents, however with inadequate rainfall and lack of fertilizer to apply to the now poor soils, she could not harvest a single kilogram of maize. Her only option was to get married. She hoped her husband would be able to fend for her and her siblings. She got married at the age of 11, even before her first menstrual experience.
With her husband Gift* they stayed well until 2013 when Martha gave birth to a baby girl. Gift became a fierce chronic drunkard and no longer supported his wife and child. Every single kwacha he earned was spent on alcohol and other girls.
Martha’s life became series of pangs. She woke up at 4a.m. every day to fetch firewood from the mountain where she risked being caught and possibly raped by some inconsiderate forest watchmen. She had to do this every day because the sources of firewood close to her village were long depleted. She was now a wife and was required to gather firewood, haul water from 3km distance, take care of a baby and husband, satisfy her husband in bed and of course attend to her second pregnancy at 13 years of age.
Realizing she had extended responsibilities, she started a small firewood business. Unfortunately, all her efforts ended in vain as her husband confiscated all her earnings. It was a terrible situation for Martha who was only 15 then. Every time her husband went on a drinking spree, Martha had to leave the house and sleep in the graveyard because every drinking episode came along with bouts. This continued until a day in 2015 when she thought she had had enough of what life had offered her. Death was her unbeatable option.
One day, Martha got a rope to strangle herself to death. While in the process, her third baby crawled up to her crying. She looked at her baby with pain and thought if she died then, her children would definitely go through what she had or even worse.
She threw the rope and packed some of her belongings along with her three kids and embarked on a journey of no return, away from the fists that subjected her to dehumanization.
She dreaded the day she married her husband.
Martha decided to hunt down her mother’s origin and ended up locating the village. Being a stranger, she was rejected and discriminated. She set up a grass house in that strange land. With no food, not even fruits in the drought hit area, her children cried of hunger. She had to be stronger than ever and began engaging in hard work just to provide little food for her children. She survived each day with toughness until an organization with an energy saving cook stove project came to her area. She was one of the women to enroll in this project and was taught to make cook stoves. She started her cook stove business which has been her source of income to date. Today Martha says:
“When I look back I can’t believe I am still alive today. I have passed through hell. As a young woman and mother, the climate change situation made it difficult for me. It led to food insecurity which forced me to marry when I was young. With male chauvinism, my situation was worse. I became a victim of abuse in the face of climate change. I have experienced it all and it was so bad.”
Martha calls herself a survivor now.
She cries as she testifies that there are other girls who are experiencing similar situations. They need to be liberated. This liberation will only come if such young women and girls are empowered enough to be resilient in the face of climate change.
*not real names
Ivy Kimtai | Kenya
Young Fem 1
What is climate justice for you?
Climate justice is about ensuring that the environment is sustained in its perfect and functioning state and that everyone is rallied to do so. The earth is not accorded the respect that it deserves and I can attest to this because, growing up, I have always appreciated the value and importance of flora and fauna. At the same time, I have watched all of these being mistreated, disrespected and discarded in a very unworthy manner.
My forefathers prayed and worshipped their gods under trees, and sacred rituals were held at the same rivers that we now litter with plastic bags and bottles.
It is no longer sacred and important to us; this is quite disturbing.
When a human being is purported to have committed a crime, a report is made to the authorities and normally a warrant for their arrest is issued. They are then arraigned in court, witnesses are called to the stand and evidence is produced to determine whether they are guilty or not. When a person is found guilty, they are then expected to face the consequences of their actions. Everyone then can say that justice has been served. In regards to climate justice; there is enough evidence that trees are being cut down, rivers are drying up, seasons have been altered, crops are not doing well, animals are going into extinction and there is poisonous litter in our environment! We are in agreement that we have destroyed the environment, and this means that we are guilty. Like a criminal is taken to a correctional facility, where are our efforts to correct and remedy our mistakes? What measures are we taking both reactively and proactively to ensure that our environment is sustainable?
We are guilty as charged and we have refused to undertake the sentence given to rectify our habits. Where is the justice for the environment? We remain environmentally corrupt!
How does it connect to feminism?
Back in our Kenyan village in a place known as Elgeyo Marakwet, at some point in time, since the rivers had dried up, we as girls and women had to cover long distances to fetch water. We also had to wash our clothes as well as those of the family’s. After a long day, we would then head back home with huge gallons of water on our backs. The tasks were far from over; we still had to go straight into the kitchen to prepare meals for the rest of the family who were possibly not tired as we were. This is a sure indication of how climate change increases disparities especially that of rural women.
While we were fetching water, our brothers had time to engage in other social and educational activities while our activities remained tied to the domestic sphere. At that time, I did not think of it that way, that it was unfair for the girls but now I am convinced that if anything, domestic duties should be shared especially in the village households.
As if that unfairness is not enough, right now at the University,
the biggest percentages of gender participating in cleanup activities are females. This is blamed upon their ability to “care” and show emotions… In this sense, there is little value for non-masculine ethics such as care,
which leads to value for environmental practices.
It is these few instances that make me believe environmental issues are feminists’ concern. Environmental issues impinge differently on men and women and the heat is felt mostly by the women, especially in rural settings.
As a young woman/and or feminist, what is your vision of the future?
I envision a future where in cases and matters of agricultural research and development, the specific needs and situations of women are analyzed. As a young woman, I would love to have my voice heard at the local government when there are discussions related to the environment. I believe my domestication and that of women over the years will ensure that an innovative perspective is formed on matters regarding the environment.
Young Fem 2
How did you choose to become a feminist and or an environmental justice advocate?
If no other reason exists, then I am a feminist because it would be crazy if I were not on my own side. Therefore, I did not choose to be a feminist, feminism chose me. In addition, being a queer woman became an impetus for my advocacy. Apart from facing discrimination because of my gender, I began facing injustices because of my sexual orientation; an aspect about me that was not a choice. I could count the number of times that I tried to be straight. I grew up in a rural town in the North Rift of Kenya; a very culturally reserved town.
I struggled to have “straight” tendencies and I used to dream of a world where I could be myself.
As a matter of fact, I wonder if that world existed and if there existed any other sinner as me. With that as a summation of my childhood, I knew that I had to advocate for a better life and experience for other like me. I wanted girls and queer girls to grow up in a perfect world; a world where they grew up knowing that they were whole.
What your path has been
In the north rift of Kenya, the major source of income is agriculture and a great percentage of the women derive income from agribusiness; therefore, the conversation on climate change is inevitable. Climate change affects harvest of crops that in turn disadvantage women both socially and economically. In the reserved culture of our town, the subordination and the oppression of women is rampant. As a feminist in our community, one of my focus areas has been working with civil organizations to end patriarchy and promote the education of the girl child. Discrimination against women and girls is the same social mentality that will lead to the degradation of the environment. Women are treated badly because that is supposedly their place. Verbal abuses are based on animals’ names and that for me is the starting point of viewing environmental justice with a gender lens.
One of the biggest challenges is that in our community, a woman’s progress is attributed to a western imposed agenda.
The rights of a woman are being violated and the violations promoted by the perpetrators using emotional appeals to fear, anger, shame and honor. For instance, it is shameful unnatural and sinful for a woman in our community to be queer. Perpetrators capitalize on the emotion of anger harbored by community, towards such ‘behavior’, to advance their agenda. This can be viewed as institutionalized oppression, and the same would apply for the environment.
How have you faced them?
With the advent of social media and the exposure of the young people, it is much easier to change the narrative in the community. Our organization focuses on using alternative narratives other than counter narratives. We promote positive stories and social values, instead of talking about ending patriarchy, we insist on the benefits of matriarchy. We are also building the capacity of the members of the girls and women in our community to engage constructively in matters affecting their rights with the point of concern being that women’s rights are not women’s rights but human rights.
Mmabatho Motsamai | Gaborone, Botswana
Using Intellectual activism for climate justice
The Kalahari region. A place which was affected long before conversations of climate change due to its historic relationship with human and animal activity. Currently one of the hottest places in the world, vegetation and fauna have adapted to its harsh weather conditions of gale force winds, incredibly cold Winter nights and extremely hot Summer days.
The region still remains home to many including Wetsho Mosokwe, a strategist and partnerships manager of Climate Exploration Hub. The hub serves as a climate service institution that bridges the gap between research, policy, climate change action and development.
Though she started her career in working for the Botswana Red Cross, she found herself tasked in disaster relief and environmental work. Working with refugees and rural communities, she noted that such communities have local knowledge and solutions for potential environmental issues. This spared wary in how scientific information is presented to such communities. She found means in simplifying and presenting information in a supplementary fashion to create an ease in knowledge sharing.
Through such youth development projects with the then disaster coordinator Sethamo Obakeng, they cofounded Climate Exploration Hub. Through the organization, she noted that there are very few women in decision making positions who work in environmental policy and wants to see more diversity in decision making processes especially regarding environmental policies.
She also believes in sustainable solutions. “I would like to see environmental policies and programmes that do not spoon-feed rural communities. I think it is to the benefit of Botswana to see communities that are self-sustaining and are not dependent on the government for resources.” She says, adding that
she has witnessed projects that use the top-down approach, only to have the project collapse when experts leave. This is what informs her belief of diverse leadership in the decision-making process.
To Mosokwe, climate justice needs to be looks at through a socio-political lens: as women in rural areas are typically subsistence farmers and take care of families. Which means that when climate related disasters such as drought happen, it affects women and their families. “Therefore, there is a need to recognize this and draft policy to mitigate this – yet there is also a lack of women in decision making positions and this has made advocacy in this regard difficult.” She says, corroborating her work.
Through her work in intellectual activism, Mosokwe has the holistic aim for communities to take full ownership and responsibility of their actions towards the environment by ensuring natural resources are used wisely without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Creating leaders out of San Women
Lesedi Karnels’s story
Her name is Lesedi Qubi Karnels. Native to Naro language and part of the one of the oldest cultures in the world – the San people. As part of the San Youth Network, Lesedi puts her energy in environmental awareness following her witnessing how human activities have affected natural resources.
“Environmental l awareness is important because it instills the dangers of human activities on the available natural resources. It does also encourage conservation on irreplaceable natural resources i.e. plants and animals. Educating the nation/ human on the environment, means they will preserve resources and reduce or eliminate the harmful impacts of man-made alterations” She says, attributing her thoughts to the recent incident of 9 elephants being killed due to an electric fault. Human activity does impact the environment, and at certain points, it can be fatal.
Karnels focuses her activism in advocacy. “Myself and my team, we do lot of advocacy on behalf of women like ourselves. Women from marginalized and downtrodden communities like ours. We are being left behind in every issue and its time we stood up and speak it out to the ones who will hear us,” she notes. While noting on advocacy for climate justice is important, she faces the challenge of not seeing women in spaces of leadership or international events. Just this past week, she raised a discussion on why men in the San Youth Network are typically in attendance of conferences and meetings while women are being left behind.
The heated and lengthy discussion left a message that women are equally important in all spaces and can represent them as much as men represent the community.
Though she faces the challenge internally, it doesn’t derail her from her core objective.
Through her work, people understand the challenges faced by indigenous communities due to impacts of climate change, she further informs them on how such can be combated. “Climate change encourages existing inequalities, including gender inequalities. As women and men are affected differently by the impacts of this, women are likely to face the greater burden in situations of poverty,” she says. Noting that climate justice can be realized through women’s voices being heard with their priorities being met.
With a vision of seeing San Women facing no discrimination based on gender or their tribe, Karnels is hopeful that her work will create more San Women leaders in spaces of advocacy.
The story of Susty Vibes
“No matter how people try to deny it, women suffer the most when the environment is threatened. We need to pay attention to this relationship more and work hard to protect the environment and women.”
Climate change and living sustainably in Africa is a fairly misunderstood concept with young people in the continent. As pop culture continuously glorifies messages of overzealous wastage of resources as its definition of affluence.
With young Africans, sustainability is easily unrelatable as there aren’t many platforms to normalize its context. This is what has lead Jennifer Uchendu into normalizing saving the planet. Learning about biofuels, biomimicry and renewable energy became the foundation of her interest in saving the planet. Through gaining knowledge, Uchendu grew an interest in creating a platform of sharing stories that relate to the young Africans experience of living – sharing stories that relate to every part of ones life. This platform is called Susty Vibes.
Susty Vibes further speaks to gender development and equity as its core of sustainability. Speaking to Uchendu, her core of activism is buried in youth engagement. “I want young people to take charge of their future by demanding a sustainable environment and society” she says, further noting on how women empowerment is also her core passion. “I have seen and studied the relationship between the changing climate and women’s development in Africa and so my work is to ensure that the both systems can thrive”.
Through her work, Uchendu engages with multiple communities inciting behavioural change through hosting events surrounding the normalization of living a sustainable life.
SustyVibes hosts parties (Susty Parties) and school campaigns that promote SDG’s. She sees eco-feminism in the existing lens of women suffer most where the environment is threatened. “We need to pay attention to this relationship more and work hard to protect the environment and women.” She says. For a long time, women and the environment have been oppressed due to greed and the desire for power. What we should seek to do is to identify the underlying issues in our quest of equal rights and a prospering planet – one of which is land rights for women in many parts of Africa and Asia, where women are unable to own lands for farmlands and businesses, these women remain weak and un-empowered, their lands are sold to companies who most likely pollute the environment and the cycle continues,” she adds. In such, Uchendu believes that these atrocities can be stopped when more women become defenders of women’s rights.
Through her tenacious work, Uchendu envisions her future being informed by Africa embossing youth that are committed to sustainability as a way of life that that many young women will be liberated from oppression by culture, religion and others. That the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals are achieved in the shortest possible time and that the planet is eventually saved from the catastrophic impacts of climate change.
How Mabel Suglo is fashionably greening the economy with Dignified
Social entrepreneurship is beckoning as a growing culture of solving problems sustainably Africa, and for one Ghanaian feminist, wastage moved from a problem to an opportunity of job creation and a path towards a greener society.
Meet Mabel Suglo, a 24 year old eco-entrepreneur who fights climate justice through empowering rural women and greening society fashionably. From cofounding an award-winning business in 2013, Ecoshoes, she has created a new social enterprise called Dignified Wear (https://www.dignifiedgh.com/).
Dignified is a socio-cultural and environmentally friendly brand of African wear that trains and employs physically challenged people and rural women to manufacture and sell locally woven fabrics, bags purses and necklaces from recycled tires, cottons and acrylic beads.
Her passion was birthed from the environment around her. According to Suglo, Ghana struggles with waste management, particularly car tires. These tires typically create a haven of breeding of mosquitoes through trapping rain water and are set on fire as means of reducing the amount of tires in the area. This has a contributing affect to the depletion of the ozone layer. Her environmentally conscious mind has allowed to view this harrowing pain into treasure for her society. Speaking to Suglo,
she links eco-feminism with the understanding that the women working at Dignified social enterprise ensure the environment in their community is healthy but also boils down to children,
and husbands in good standing as women play a role of nurturers in their society. “By so doing, we will have a healthy household which will lead to us being a wealthy nation as the going goes that, ‘a healthy people is a healthy nation” she says. “We therefore consider it paramount at Dignified, to hand make our products by upcycling materials and other sustainably sourced materials from trash into treasures without the production and emission of Green House Gases,” she adds.
To Suglo, feminism and climate justice intersect through her belief that women in every society deserve to be given equal opportunities in accessing resources for better future decision making.
Furthermore, in the same light that humans have the right to life, so does the environment. In such, humans should not infringe the right to environmental life through any forms of pollution – be it land water or air.
Drawing to 5 years in a career of eco-entrepreneurship, Suglo sees the future of dignified riddled with more job opportunities for talented yet marginalized women artisans and to be able to obtain a fair trade certification in order to be in spaces of fair trade exhibitions both locally and internationally to market and create distribution channels for her business.