Climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately affect the lives of women. I should know, I have first-hand experience of these effects in my own community. But I have also seen the ability of a small group of united women to create change. For that reason I hope my words are plain enough when I say that if we have any chance of protecting our environment for our children, we women must now raise our voices.
Most people who know me will find this difficult to believe, but when I was a little girl I was very quiet and shy. I grew up with my grandparents, who remain my heroes, and in fact it was my grandfather who taught me to be a brave woman. He did this by asking me to look after his cattle. At first, when I went into the fields where it was mostly boys who were looking after cattle, I would often come home crying. When that happened, my grandfather would take me to the home of the boy who had made me cry and when we got there, he would insist that I confront him. In this way he taught me not to be afraid and to learn to stand up for myself.
Perhaps that is why, when I learned that a mine was coming to my home village in 2011, I did not hesitate to confront the traditional leaders and mine officials at a public meeting. I asked the chief why these meetings were happening without participation from the people who lived there, and when he responded that the process of approval for the mine was already advanced, I told everyone there that they could not proceed without properly consulting the community. That day when I raised my voice, many of the people there stood up with me.
From that day forward my community and I have been fighting against mining interests in our area. Over the last 10 years I have witnessed first-hand the harm that non-compliant mining has done to our land and our people, and especially how this has affected the lives of women.
As a child tending cattle I have clear memories of the landscape of my home. Where once rivers flowed, now they have dried up or are too polluted to be used. Even our groundwater is being poisoned, resulting in people having to buy drinking water that they cannot afford. Traditional healers can no longer access medicinal plants without trespassing on mine land and our crops are far less productive thanks to soil pollution. When the wind blows we can all smell the air pollution and dust that makes many people sick, especially the elderly and young children.
All of these negative effects impact women in particular. It is primarily women who grow food to sustain their families and who can no longer do so due to soil and water pollution. It is women who must travel further and further to find clean water. We can also no longer take our teenage girls to initiation schools because we do not have access to traditional lands.
The mines also cause social and economic problems for women. Fewer women can look for work outside the home because they have to care for relatives who have been sickened by pollution. The mines also employ very few women workers, which excludes women from accessing any economic benefit from the mines. In addition the mines often hire male workers from other areas who already have experience in the industry. This leads to higher unemployment amongst local men and in turn increases rates of domestic violence, underage prostitution and teenage pregnancy amongst our girls.
This is not unique to my home. The same story is happening in many places in South Africa and around the world. My personal experience is borne out in research that shows women are disproportionately affected by adverse weather events, natural disasters and environmental degradation, while simultaneously being less likely than men to be employed in the green economy or renewable energy sector.
For example, this year Catalyst found that 25% of the 2.5 billion women globally aged 15 to 64 perform unpaid care work on a full-time basis, whereas only 2% of men aged 15 to 64 perform unpaid care work full-time. In South Africa this has been exacerbated by the extractive economy encouraging the idea of men as workers and women as caregivers.
Women are also more affected by adverse weather events. In 2019 it was estimated that half a million women were affected by cyclone Idai, mostly Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Also in 2019, the Global Fund for Women found Idai impacted women, young girls and LGBTQ+ people to a greater degree than other groups through increased sexual violence, unsafe labour, and a lack of access to medical care.
To combat these effects we need to consider broad change as well as gender-specific actions.
On a national level we need to hold political leaders to account as an example to provincial and local officials who are tempted by bribes and nepotism.
When it comes to the mines all we ask is that they comply with the law and if they cannot do this then they accept they cannot mine. We must have regulators and effective task teams that ensure mines are responsible and if they are not, they must be held accountable and be made to pay.
In our communities we must stand up to patriarchal attitudes amongst uninformed traditional leaders who discourage women from taking up leadership positions. And we must make it easier for women to participate in decision-making and environmental activism by providing social grants, childcare and access to technology that can be used to network and document environmental violations.
Today, when I think about the future I see two pictures. In the first we have failed to avert disaster, our leaders have continued to dish out the mineral riches that are the birth right of our children and the future is a dark one where life is short, even basic necessities are expensive and children no longer know what a bird or a lizard or a frog looks like.
My other picture of the future is green and beautiful. If we succeed in protecting our environment and moving away from polluting industries then we can look forward to a happy and healthy future in which children can swim in our rivers again, our brothers can fish, we can once again use the land productively.
This is a future worth raising our voices for. A future in which other quiet, shy girls can grow up to be brave women in an environment that is supportive to their health and well-being.
Margaret Ghogha Molomo is Chairperson of MEJCON, the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa, and an environmental activist who campaigns against mining interests in defence of the right to a healthy environment. She is from Masodi village, Mokopane in Limpopo.