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In conversation with feminist climate activist Emilia Reyes about the upcoming UN Commission on the Status of Women

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A girl during a global protest on climate change in Montevideo, Uruguay, 2019. Across the globe, hundreds of thousands of people took the streets to demand that leaders tackle climate change in the run-up to a UN summit. Photo: AP/Matilde Campodonico

Emilia Reyes is a feminist climate activist and a Programme Director at Equidad de Género, a Mexico-based feminist organization promoting gender equality. She will be participating in negotiations as part of the Mexican delegation at 66th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW66), set to take place this March in New York. She spoke with David Williams and Gaya Sriskanthan of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in the run-up to the conference about why a feminist perspective is crucial to the fight for climate justice.

Emilia, can you briefly explain why feminism and gender equality are key to addressing the climate crisis?

There are at least two layers to this question. The first relates to the relevance of a feminist vision with regards to environmental integrity and solutions proposed to address the climate crisis. A feminist view aims to transform power structures, to seek redistribution and system change. But depending on what those power structures are in the eyes of any specific feminist tradition, you will find different answers. There are many feminisms, many schools of thought.

Emilia Reyes is a feminist climate activist and a Programme Director at Equidad de Género, a Mexico-based feminist organization promoting gender equality.

My framework is the Latin American feminist structural tradition of thought, which is also built upon the knowledge generated by Latin American feminist economists. A starting point for these traditions is the sexual division of labour, which is located at the foundation of human societies. Another starting point is the geographic division of labour, which, although initiated with colonial invasions centuries ago, are still seen through colonial dynamics occurring in a different and up-dated manner nowadays.

So, seen from a feminist perspectives, solving the climate crisis requires systemic changes.

The radical project of the feminist movement aims to shift structures, and therefore cannot conform with cosmetic procedures or superficial measures. In the case of a structural feminist analysis, you have to include a de-colonial view on the way power structures are shaped and maintained, while recognizing the ways the sexual division of labour impacts how societies are organized. The climate emergency is the result of multiple factors and all these must be addressed.

Science has proven that there is a historical responsibility of countries in the Global North in endangering the wellbeing of people and life on the planet. A structural feminist de-colonial approach will seek to firstly find macro solutions to address global challenges, such as the environmental emergency and global inequalities, while, secondly, promoting differentiated measures to tackle gender inequality gaps in every realm of human life — including in the way societies relate to their natural and artificial surroundings. It is the way in which structures of power are interrelated at a number of levels, from the personal to the international, that these feminist lenses are needed to bring about comprehensive and radical solutions at all levels.

And the second layer of the question?

The second layer refers to the issue of gender equality, and I will add here, women’s human rights. We can use here a very simple definition of gender for the purposes of this interview: the social construction of sexual difference. The sexual division of labour is intrinsically linked with the way societies organize themselves. It is so widespread, it is so present in every dimension of our lives, that we do not see it. It has been “naturalized”, as feminists say.

It is the sexual division of labour that determines the way in which all people, women and men have been socialized not only about their identities, but also regarding the way they relate to their productive engagement with the world. The sexual division of labour can also be seen in the way some productive sectors have a largely masculine labour force, and other sectors are more “feminized”.

And this is also relevant regarding the responsibility for emissions?

With the environmental emergency, what we see is that sectors with a larger masculine labour force are the ones that have been historically responsible for greater carbon emissions. For instance, sectors like infrastructure, energy, transportation, and even industrial agriculture based on mono-culture and intensive livestock.

Additionally, due to the sexual division of labour (and the consequent gender inequality gaps in access to resources and opportunities, the failure to uphold women’s human rights, the failure to recognize their legal personhood, bodily autonomy and many other issues), women have been on the receiving end of the more negative impacts of the climate emergency. With the current measures for a just and equitable transition, if we don’t include a gender perspective, we will see that those sectors with a greater male composition will be the ones that will receive all the investment, reproducing existing inequality gaps.

You are attending the Commission on the Status of Women this year. What is this and why is it important for gender equality?

It is the Commission under the United Nations (UN) that has the mandate to monitor the way gender equality and women’s human rights are ensured across time. There are other UN bodies that deal with the implementation of sustainable development and human rights goals, but this one in particular has a yearly mandate to review the progress, the challenges and the emerging issues related to gender.

It is important because this is a space where governments from all around the world meet to acknowledge the challenges to gender equality and agree on measures to address them. It is also a space for the global gathering of diverse feminists movements, and therefore a fruitful space to generate more knowledge, to build and strengthen alliances, and to promote strategic ways to advance gender equality and women’s human rights.

You made a compelling case for understanding the sexual division of labour in any approaches to delivering a just transition. Why is acknowledging care and reproductive work specifically so important in this context?

This question is at the core of the entire conversation. Due to the sexual division of labour, women perform unpaid domestic and care work. This work generates an amount of non-monetized value that it is larger than all the money in the world combined.

From a feminist analysis it is quite evident that the dominant economic system only accounts for the value that circulates through markets. However, the value generated by human labour is larger than that, and due to the sexual division of labour, the value generated by women has historically been excluded from markets.

And yet, the real economies extract all the wealth from this unpaid domestic and care work. There is a direct correlation between the concentration of wealth, and the exploitation of women’s labour — more specifically, the extraction of wealth is directly linked to the way women generate value and this value is expropriated from them. Women have an added burden because of this, essentially subsidizing the entire global economy. This is why, in feminist structural analysis, we don’t call it “reproductive” work, but “productive” work. Most of women’s unpaid domestic and care work pertains to sustaining life, with a strong relation to the surroundings.

How does this relate to environmental issues?

We are still unpacking the way in which this dimension is linked to environmental emergencies, as well as the paradigm shift needed around these complex issues, because we don’t want to fall into the trap of expecting women to “nurture” the environment back from its destruction. Not only is this exploitative reasoning, it is also limited, if not naïve, because it implies we are not touching upon the larger structural dimensions of the social and environmental impacts of concentration of wealth and the extractivist logic of the capitalistic system.

How should an understanding of the specific identities and experiences of a person — their intersectional identity — be used to achieve gender equality in the context of climate justice?

In the Latin American region, we talk about two dimensions: the gender condition and the gender situation. The gender condition refers to the implications of structural gender inequality that is a result of the sexual division of labour and the implications of women’s unpaid domestic and care work. This results in major inequality between women and men, and this needs to be addressed in every field and every point of entry of our work.

The second dimension, the gender situation, refers to the specific context of individuals, particularly characteristics such as age, race and ethnicity, class, disability, geographic location, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, sex characteristic, and others. This dimension expands on our understanding of the way inequalities may be deeper in conjunction with other conditions, and result in multiple forms of discrimination.

The term “intersectionality” is a concept created by a black North American feminist, Kimberlé Crenshaw, to account for the diverse experiences of women when you add these layers of the different human conditions. In my understanding, the term intersectionality is close to the notion of gender situation, which is, without a doubt, a dimension that allows us to detect specific inequality gaps, and to promote differentiated measures aligned with the diverse realities of different groups.

The term intersectionality is also extremely valuable because it brings a de-colonial and racial justice dimension. It has therefore allowed to give visibility to groups who are seeking to see their human rights respected and ensured, while also preserving the wealth of their own diversity.

So an intersectional approach helps to acknowledge that different groups of women are affected by the climate crisis in very different ways.

Yes. It is important to acknowledge that, in addition to the way the climate emergency has a differentiated impact between women and men, different groups need to be made visible because they are subjected to more exploitation, discrimination, and oppression.

For instance, under a decolonial lens, it is clear that women of the Global South are suffering the greatest negative impacts of the climate emergency, but within this group, it is women in the poorest countries and Small Islands Developing States that are impacted the most. It is not only racialized groups who are facing a threat to their survival, but also those with different economic, disability, age, and sex characteristics or geographical location, among other factors.

To build the right solutions, we need to be able to urgently provide solutions for those most impacted. It is the countries of the Global North that are most responsible for the climate emergency and therefore not only responsible for violating the human rights of women of the Global South, but more acutely the rights of those in the poorest countries, islands, and those groups suffering from multiple discrimination.

Every year, the CSW announces priority themes. This year, the priority theme is based on the goal of “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”. How would things look or be different if we did achieve that goal? How would we know we have been successful?

Honestly, I don’t think we are yet capable of imagining how a world that has fully eradicated the sexual division of labour and gender inequality would look like. We are using all of our imagination, and yet we are still in a phase of creation, of dreaming, of projection and of immediate action — and of defending whatever little has been gained, because we are fighting in a world with increased fundamentalisms, trying to take back every gain.

I don’t know how effective humanity has been in imagining how a world without a predatory and extractivist system looks, but indigenous peoples and local communities have managed do to that in ways that the rest of humanity has not had the capacity to understand. I don’t know how our environmental “goals” would look, but I do know we need to listen more closely to the wisdom of indigenous peoples and local communities to start advancing towards those ends. I do not mean to say they live in a void, or that inequalities do not exist in those spaces. I think these are still challenges for our collectives to unpack.

What are your specific demands for CSW66?

I want it all! I think it’s clear we cannot advance in one field if we do not advance in others. But I will say that the more structural the gains are, the larger the impact, the further the reach.

This has to come as well with a recognition of the urgent action needed for those facing the harshest impacts of inequalities, multiple forms of discrimination and those bearing the brunt of environmental emergencies. Therefore I want to see some principles that may help to tackle those things, like polluter pays, fair share, progressivity of rights, and other much needed elements, like an agreed definition on climate justice that is decolonial and feminist. This requires a full transformation of the international economic and financial architecture (including UN bodies for tax and debt justice) to create a fairer system, a commitment to strengthen the public sector, providing guarantees for public services, full divestment from fossil fuels, and a commitment to a just and equitable transition, and so much more.

The list is long. Hopefully we manage to get the foundations for all these elements and those that I’m missing. But also, I have to say that I want to dream of a CSW that delivers all that is needed to reinvigorate the fight for gender, climate, and environmental justice in multiple fora, even outside of the UN.

What gives you hope? Where do you draw your inspiration as a feminist climate activist?

This one is short and simple: my inspiration comes from my global, regional, and local family of activists, from all paths of life, from all sorts of movements, especially the wide world of the feminist activists, with the fierceness to seek something that I can’t even imagine, but also with determination that is larger than the challenges ahead.