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Grassroots Organising for Climate Action: Where are African Women Activists?

This project, funded by the SSPP Faculty’s Research Impact Fund, responds to the Paris Agreement’s (UNFCCC 2015) call for a ‘gender responsive’ approach to climate action, recognising the disproportionate impacts of climate change on women. It, on the one hand examines how gender intersects with climate change to exacerbate existing outcomes of entrenched gender inequality; and on the other hand, how grassroots women activists navigate patriarchal systems of power and dominance to shape climate action.

The case study focuses on Malawi, considering that the landlocked nation, is one of the world’s poorest states, with one of the lowest GDP per capita globally. Women are the face of poverty, with 70% living below the poverty line (UNICEF 2020). Agriculture remains the largest employment sector in Malawi (WB 2022) and although women are the majority (59%), a productivity gap results in farm plots managed by men producing on average 25% higher yields. This is likely to have been exacerbated by pandemic restrictions, which have also disproportionally impacted women, particularly those working in the informal economy (Cook and Borges 2022). Malawi is also contextualised within the wider African continent and its priorities as despite registering the lowest per capita emissions of any world region every year since 1960 (MIF 2022), the African continent faces the most severe impacts of climate change, with nine out of the 10 most vulnerable countries worldwide being in Africa (ND-GAIN 2020).

As climate change is intrinsically linked to poverty, it impacts the lives of the world’s poorest people the most. As such, it is no surprise that, especially in the Global South, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis due to their climate sensitive livelihoods and dependency mainly on natural resources. Agency matters because research shows that, when women participate in decision-making at national and community levels, they are key to effective climate solutions (Action Aid 2022). Their traditional roles within families mean that they often act as stewards of natural and household resources as everyday billions of women worldwide make decisions that influence the environment, ranging from the choice of fuel they use to cook for their families, to farming strategies that influence soil carbon emissions, as well as consumer choices. This makes them critical agents of change in climate action. 

Focusing on Malawi as a case-study, this project aims to generate empirical evidence to inform policy and decision-making processes on the ‘quiet leadership’ that characterises African women’s roles in climate activism.

Project status: Ongoing