As world leaders descended on Madrid, Spain, during the first two weeks of December 2019 for the annual United Nations climate summit (COP25), a video of blindfolded women filling plazas across Latin America and Europe went viral; the women stomping, symbolically squatting and singing in unison, in Spanish, to the beat of a drum: “The patriarchy is the judge/ It judges us for just being born/ And our punishment / is the violence you don’t see.” The lyrics escalate, “The rapist is you/ It’s the cops/ The judges/ The state/ The president.” In Madrid, feminists from around the world gathered near COP25 to perform the piece, “A Rapist in Your Path.”
“We are extremely concerned that this COP will set the groundwork for a climate action mechanism that will affect generations after us and that will threaten women’s human rights and harm the environment,” says German activist Patricia Bohland.
The performance piece is the work of Chilean feminist theater group Las Tesis, first performed to call attention to the violent state repression amid political unrest in Chile, and ongoing sexual violence against women under Chilean President Sebastián Piñera. Its mass appeal has as much to do with its unavoidably direct message as its easy-to-learn lyrics and movements, says Chilean activist Justina Del Pino. But most powerfully, its allure lies in its nature as a battle cry of resistance against violence in all forms, Del Pino says, against women and the land and people they care for. It addresses the ongoing and overlapping frustration of women living in a society where violence against their bodies, territories and the environment they depend on is commonplace. The outcry against this violence has come to a head during the ongoing protests in Chile, during which at least 23 people have died, and over 2,500 have been injured. In the midst of the uprising, President Piñera backed out of hosting COP25, prompting a shift in the conference’s location to Madrid.
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The performance, along with protests around the convening and an alternative climate summit in Madrid — organized to coincide with the official event — reveal a rising activist insistence that feminist thinking must be at the forefront of climate crisis action plans. “Eco-feminism is a solution for the system we need to change,” Friends of the Earth Nigeria activist Rita Iyke-Uwaka told the crowd at the alternative summit. Eco-feminism is a critical and wide-ranging set of ideas that call attention to the link between centuries of exploitation of women and the environment — a patriarchal system that exclusively serves the interests of those benefiting from the global capitalist economy.
For the first time in the UN climate summit’s history, protest arose inside the actual convening. On December 11, youth activists occupied a major stage in the COP25 conference venue, and hundreds of Indigenous leaders and activists from the Global South led a walk-out to oppose the lack of focus on human rights and gender equality at the summit. “People are dying every day for sins they did not commit,” Iyke-Uwaka told Democracy Now! after walking out. “We want a climate just solution. We don’t want capital markets,” she said, in reference to debate over Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, the last article to be resolved.
Numerous activists and organizations that attended COP25, including those self-identifying as “feminist,” or “eco-feminist,” want Article 6 to include explicit language that establishes human rights protections for people most impacted by the climate crisis, and local solutions, rather than carbon-trading programs that would require countries of the Global South to purchase carbon credits from wealthier countries. Following the action, Iyke-Uwaka, along with hundreds of other activists, were kicked out of the United Nations summit — their passes to enter COP25 revoked by UN officials.
A 45-minute subway ride southwest of the United Nations convening, organizations and individuals attending the alternative climate summit at the Complutense University of Madrid showcased the climate work of women and need for feminist thought. The summit was organized by environmental and social justice groups, including Ecologists in Action.
Earlier in the day, in a university classroom packed with a multigenerational crowd from the alternative summit, Spanish Ministry of Finances researcher María Pazos Morán dug into what she identified as the “core” of climate problem: a male-driven economy that centers the needs of only half of the population. “Cars and planes,” “meat” and “caretaking” were the headings of a grid she and her colleagues drew on a whiteboard. “These are three major topics that are big contributors to contamination,” she said. “You can choose whether or not to go to the movies, whether or not to make love, but you can’t choose whether or not you will eat or move about, or whether or not to care for (family).” Morán asked those in the room to vote with a show of hands as to which of the three activities most contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and which gender was employed and culturally associated with each. Her argument burgeoned to make the case that globally, men are most employed by and most involved in the consumption of two of the most polluting: private means of transportation and meat consumption. Given that men continue to hold more leadership roles in government, they also disproportionately advocate for policies that enable the uninhibited continuation of each, such as ongoing corn and soy subsidies which keep beef prices artificially low and a lack of funding for public transit projects.
This dynamic was also evident at the annual United Nations climate summit, said researcher for the Polytechnical University of Catalonia, Gisela Torrents Monegal. According to Monegal’s analysis of COP25 attendance and that of the previous two climate conferences, COP24 and COP23, women have comprised 37 to 40 percent of delegates. But the the uneven breakdown has concrete repercussions, Monegal said, in that climate policy and international agreements are based in business deals, like the concept of carbon trading. “We are trying to solve the problem with the same tools that created the problem,” she said.
Another issue with the climate solutions being discussed in formal spaces like United Nations halls is the actual way we talk about the problem, adds Conchi Piñeiro. Piñeiro is a researcher and group process facilitator with a Madrid-based organization called Altekio, which focuses on research-based strategies to bring about an eco-social transformation. Piñeiro led workshops on how climate change impacts emotions at the COP25 and the alternative climate summit, where participants spoke openly about climate anxiety, anger, apathy and camaraderie. Previously, climate talks have been cut-and-dry, revolving around facts and figures. “But for solutions to be genuinely resilient and sustainable, we need to boost people’s ability to cope with [climate breakdown] happening around them,” she told Truthout. Creating space and cultivating tools for conversation about the trauma and stress of dealing with the climate crisis is one way of doing this, she says.
Also in attendance at the alternative summit was the daughter of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in 2016. The COP negotiations are always painful to watch and listen to, says Laura Cáceres, because of the focus on market-driven solutions and green technologies. “They skip over who is actually guilty,” she says, such as the Honduran head-of-state Juan Orlando Hernández, who burst into power after a 2009 military coup. “He has blocked justice for my mom.”
As Cáceres told Truthout, eco-feminist thought has helped activists in Honduras understand why fighting for climate must go beyond pushing recycling programs, to get to the roots of the problems, like the extractivist economy. “My mom was killed for fighting against a dam, which is a clean form of energy,” she says. “We need to question exactly what we’re referring to when we talk about [things like] green capitalism.” According to a report by Global Witness, more than three people were killed per week in 2018 for defending their land and environment, many of them Indigenous women.
Ongoing violence against activists standing up for the environment and the people living in it is exactly the kind of awareness-making that the “A Rapist in Your Path” protest performance piece performed outside the walls of COP25 and around the world stands to educate people about, Chilean activist Del Pino told Truthout. “We all want to scream the song — not just sing it, we want everyone to see us, to hear us, to learn about what is happening.” Greater collective awareness might just lead to a shift in leadership. “Women are very key in this climate discussion,” Iyke-Uwaka told the crowd at the alternative summit. “We need to recognize that when our lands are taken away from us, when our forests are brought to their knees, when our rivers and oceans are polluted, the most impacted are women and those that fall under their care,” she said.
All parties to the Paris Agreement have adopted a new Gender Action Plan as a result of the summit, which includes prioritizing gender balance in climate negotiations. But there is a lot it does not address, like non-binary gender roles.
“We remain appalled by the lack of progress overall in these negotiations,” says Women’s Environment and Development Organization director Bridget Burns. “We know that real climate action can only be achieved when these voices and leadership are centered and heeded.”
The UN climate talks were scheduled to conclude on Friday, December 13, but are continuing into the weekend, as world leaders continue to debate an international carbon market under Article 6.