Does sustainable development ignore women of colour?

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The formal recognition of equality between men and women is not enough to achieve a full realisation of women’s rights.

Does sustainable development ignore women of colour?
Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, but with research and explanations.

The myth of equal rights

Back in 1948, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified by the UN. It laid out a comprehensive set of principles granting every person on earth a set of unalienable rights.

However, we still find a glaring gap between formal and substantive rights almost everywhere in the world. The formal recognition of equality between men and women is not enough to achieve a full realisation of women’s rights.

The founding myth of equality of all people was built on the male subject; white, heterosexual, owner, independent, and autonomous. This man is thought of as “the norm” since most of the people in power throughout history have been cishet white men. This man, who was granted these rights, was above limitations of class, race, and gender and has exercised his rights in the public sphere for centuries.

Who is left out?

Everyone else. The specific realities and needs of women and other marginalised groups has not been addressed. From the feminist perspective, this view of human rights is harmful. While patriarchy and those who defend it continues to run the way in which women live across the globe, the immediate threat of climate change is one of the main concerns in an increasingly neo-liberal method of approaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Economic growth, in combination with a neo-liberal and patriarchal system, is based on the exploitation of labour forces and the largely unpaid work of women in both the public and private spheres. This is directly related to violations of women’s rights under these very goals, and in particular, the unpaid work of women of colour. A deep analysis of the structural and systemic causes of inequality, poverty, and gender inequality are severely needed to develop a world in which we can grow sustainability both in terms of the environment and human rights for women of colour.

Women and climate change

Women, often recognised as unpaid caregivers and providers of food and fuel, are predicted to be disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis. Approximately 80% of people displaced by climate change are women, according to the UN. Women are primary caregivers and providers of food and these informal professions make them more vulnerable during flooding and drought. Due to the majority of these women being women of colour, we can no longer continue to ignore the fact that intersectional thought is necessary when developing sustainable solutions in the face of climate change.

Intersectionality and women of colour

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a US law academic, coined the term “Intersectional feminism” as seeing the way in which different forms of inequality operate and exacerbate each other, because “all inequality is not created equal,” she says. Using an intersectional approach shows the way that people’s social identities can overlap, creating compounding experiences of discrimination. Race inequality exists separately from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality, or immigrant status because some people are subject to all of these and some of them only one. We cannot ignore these differences of experience even within the realm of both feminism and sustainable development.

The lived reality of women of colour is that due to the way in which patriarchy has been structured around white capital, brown women are seen as domestic workers, farmworkers, cleaners in a corporate environment, and caregivers. “Those who are most impacted by gender-based violence, and by gender inequalities, are also the most impoverished and marginalised,” explains Majandra Rodriguez Acha, a youth leader and climate justice advocate from Lima, Peru.

That marginalised communities are the most impacted by natural disasters and the devastating effects of climate change is not a mere coincidence, she explains.

Women of colour and climate change

Aside from climate change having a disproportionate impact on women and children, who are 14 times as likely as men to die during a disaster, the unprecedented impacts of climate change are already disproportionately burdening the poorest, most vulnerable, and marginalised. Gender is a critical dimension that must be recognised, understood, and addressed to successfully and sustainably adapt and build resilience to climate change across the most at-risk communities. If not, sustainable development cannot work for all, again leaving women of colour behind in providing for their communities as they are largely the providers for their homes and communities in the remotest parts of the world.

In the immediate aftermath of disasters, emergency shelters are mostly inadequate in supporting women. The UNFPA reported that the risk of violence, exploitation and abuse is heightened in these times, and while national systems and community and social support networks may weaken, gendered injustices mean that perpetrators are not held to account and pre-existing gender inequalities may be exacerbated. There have been reports of rape by UN peacekeepers in temporary shelters and The Superdome, in which evacuees were temporarily housed after Hurricane Katrina, didn't have enough sanitary products for the (mostly black) women there.

Where to from here?

The UN highlights the need for gender-sensitive responses to the impacts of climate change, however, the representation of women in negotiating bodies is below 30%, according to an initiative by the BBC, Science in Action. "Women are often not involved in the decisions made about the responses to climate change, so the money ends up going to the men rather than the women," environmental scientist Diana Liverman said. This number is even lower when looking at how many women of colour are involved.

As much as we would like to think that we’re all in this climate change challenge together, the impact of climate events is influenced by societal structures. So it doesn’t affect all people equally and currently, women of colour don’t have a big enough voice in the changes that are being made.

While we can’t do much without international and big business buy-in, these are things we need to keep in mind and push for our governments to consider in sustainable development.

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