The Blog

Leveraging Law: Women Paving the Way to Demand Environmental Justice

By: Alexandra Wenzel

Women and gender minorities are disproportionately affected by environmental issues. However, they are also at the forefront of demanding legal action and implementing solutions. There are so many women and women-led organizations addressing the climate and environmental crises we face today. In this blog post, I’d like to share just two examples of women demanding accountability through the law – Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Patricia Gualinga.

elderly women engaging in climate change advocacy
Photo of Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz. Source:

I am uplifted seeing women come together to demand accountability. 459 women in the Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, or Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland, filed suit against the Swiss government and now with the European Court of Human Rights. The organization alleged that climate change directly threatens their fundamental human rights and necessitates action. The association filed a petition against the Swiss government for failure to mitigate climate change in the case Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz v. Bundesrat. While their case in Switzerland was denied, the organization is currently in the process of hearing back from the European Court of Human Rights. Their case was encouragingly granted priority status by the court. These 459 women brought the issue on the basis that climate change leads to health impacts which are particularly harmful to elderly women, violating their right to life. Elderly women face a unique burden. In Switzerland, data demonstrates a strong link between climate change-induced heat waves and the unevenly distributed health impacts on elderly women. 

While women, and elderly women in particular, are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis, they are also active agents in the fight for climate justice. They are advisors and custodians of knowledge, holding specific expertise and leadership key to advancing climate action. In most of the world, elderly women are caretakers, and holders of intergenerational knowledge essential to living sustainable livelihoods. Their direct experience with climate change and social injustice, coupled with the intergenerational knowledge they hold, makes their role in climate action paramount.

Often, focus is placed on the activism of youth, but the importance of elderly voices, particularly marginalized voices, should not be ignored in this sphere. When women lead, when Indigenous peoples lead, when marginalized and underrepresented peoples lead, we all do better.

Photo of Patricia Gualinga. Source: Amnesty International.

On the point of Indigenous peoples’ leadership in the fight for environmental and social justice, I want to highlight Patricia Gualinga who is an Indigenous land defender from the Kichwa People of Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Gualinga was a key representative in a case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that ordered Ecuador to acknowledge that it had violated the right to free, prior and informed consultation by authorizing oil exploration. These same rights are outlined under the Escazú Agreement – the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean – which allow for greater transparency and accountability. Gualinga is also a member of the Mujeres Amazónicas, or the Amazonian Women Defending the Forest from Extractivism, a group of Indigenous women who defend the preservation of their territory from the extraction industry.

As a spokesperson at the 23rd annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, Gualinga said,

“Our struggle is for life, for justice, for Mother Earth. For women, youth, our children and their children. For our future!” 

Amazonian women defend their territory as a living space as opposed to colonial narratives of the Amazon being an empty place, a mythical place full of unlimited resources to be exploited, or a natural “Eden” of biodiversity in danger of extinction. Amazonian women have proposed to declare their rainforest a Kawsak Sacha, or a living forest. It would be a new legal category as a protected area to defend the rights of nature. Gualinga said, “Kawsak Sacha is a proposal that comes from the deepest knowledge of the forest and nature. It launches into the world a vision of global responsibility towards the protection of nature and the Amazon.”

An intersectional lens helps us understand the complex systems of colonialism which seek to silence Indigenous peoples and ways of knowing related to the land as well as patriarchal gender-based violence. In the Amazon, Gualinga, along with other women land defenders continue to fight for the rights of their land and peoples as they face high levels of violence and intimidation in their activism. Nina Gualinga said, “extractive violence against the land and violence against Indigenous women go hand and hand.” Many cases demonstrate the violence against Indigenous women who demonstrate their rights against extractive industries. Berta Cáceres, a Lenca Indigenous women, was murdered by men with ties to the Honduras company building a dam which Cáceres had strongly opposed due to its overlapping of territory with Lenca people. An intersectional approach to realizing gender equity sheds light on the overlapping forms of discrimination faced by women Indigenous land defenders. 

Actualizing the Agenda of CSW66

The strides made by the Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Patricia Gualinga in their respective communities are substantial and have reverberated to other communities who have learned from and built on their successes. The work by these elderly women and Indigenous women show the need to deliver upon gender-equity for the diverse groups of women affected by climate change and environmental issues. 

The theme of the 66th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women is “achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes.” The work of Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Patricia Gualinga are only two examples of the active role of women in paving the way for a more sustainable and equitable world. Whole-of-society must be engaged in learning from women like them and in pushing forward on both gender and environmental rights. The agreed  conclusions of the CSW66 calls for gender responsive policies and actions. However, I would like to go one further to call for a gender-transformative approach. A gender-transformative approach ensures that “gender equity is at the centre of solutions;” the aim of CSW66. 

One of the agreed conclusions is to “ensure the full, equal, effective and meaningful participation, representation and leadership of women, at all levels of relevant climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction decision-making bodies and processes.” Women are already participating in enacting change, it is now time to provide support, including financially, to allow this change to happen.