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Professor Ruth Hall and Professor Moenieba Isaacs, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS)

In a world gripped by the urgency of climate change, the voices of rural women often remain unheard. On August 23, 2023, we convened a public webinar hosted by our Economic and Management Sciences Faculty, bringing together a panel of experts to shed light on the profound climate justice struggles faced by rural women in South Africa. The discussion featured six young researchers from the Institute of Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies: Ayanda Madlala, Siphesihle Mbhele, Nduduzo Majozi, Maud Sebelebele, Stha Yeni, and Ashley Fischhoff. This event, held in honour of Women’s Month, sought to explore the intricate intersection of climate justice and the experiences of rural women.

Amidst the cacophony of climate discourse, the plight of rural women remains a marginalised narrative. Rural women reside at the frontline of climate shocks – fires, floods, droughts, heatwaves, and rising sea temperatures – alongside climate variability, which plays havoc with those whose livelihoods rely on nature. Compounded by their physical, social, and economic vulnerabilities, rural women have fewer options for adapting to these climatic shocks compared to their male counterparts. We heard how women navigate climate change, seeking alternative means of producing food, transporting perishable goods to markets, collecting essential resources, and even contending with new risks arising from encroachments into wildlife habitats. This reality thrusts upon them a disproportionate burden of labour as they strive to survive amidst increasing precarity.

Yet the victim narrative fails to account for rural women’s agency. Our public webinar brought into focus the innovative ways in which rural women are responding to these challenges, not merely as survivors but as active agents of change. The discussion spanned diverse research sites across South Africa, from Mapungubwe in Limpopo to the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal and the Cape Flats. These women, who often find themselves at the nexus of climate justice struggles, commonly emerge as defenders of nature against the encroachment of extractive industries like minerals, oil, and gas. Despite their pivotal role, the lived experiences of rural women remain largely absent from policy dialogues.

The young UWC researchers who were featured drew on their own postgraduate thesis research, and PLAAS project work, to address two questions:

1: How do rural women cope with increasing droughts, floods, heat waves, and sea-level rise while ensuring food security and preserving their livelihoods?

2: What are the climate justice struggles for rural women in domains such as land, agriculture, fisheries, and conservation? What transformative policies are needed to empower rural women in climate justice discussions?

The responses to these questions revealed a landscape of collective responses and grassroots movements: 

  1. Struggles around mining: The voices of rural women rose against new mining operations that threatened their lands and livelihoods. The Somkhele (KZN) and Xolobeni (Eastern Cape) communities were emblematic of these challenges.
  2. Women in mining: WOMiN and MACUA rallied behind the cause of women in mining-affected areas, carving out spaces for their voices.
  3. Protest and direct action: Rural women engaged in protests and direct actions to secure essential resources, though these struggles were not always framed explicitly as ‘climate’ issues.
  4. Rural Women’s Assembly: Advocacy around land rights and agroecology found a home within the Rural Women’s Assembly.

Beyond the local context, collective responses and political struggles gained traction.

Collaborative efforts, such as the Climate Justice Charter and the Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD), emerged as platforms for advocacy.

The concept of ‘climate justice’ took centre stage, characterised by demands for transparency in climate financing, ‘loss and damage’ frameworks at a national level, and a just transition that guarantees rights and voices for rural women in mining and agricultural domains.

The event illuminated the need for research that both informs and listens to rural women, elevating their narratives from the margins to the mainstream climate discourse. It was a reminder that climate justice can only be realised when the voices and struggles of the most vulnerable are prioritised. This can help to advance knowledge and responses beyond mitigation and adaptation to substantive climate justice. In our view, climate justice is integrally connected with social justice. Climate change, therefore, adds urgency to address the profound inequalities in our society.

We closed with a challenge both to ourselves and to colleagues across our Faculty to adopt climate change as a cross-cutting priority transcending the niche areas in our Faculty: entrepreneurship, citizenship and democracy, and land. A linked-up set of initiatives could integrate climate change in teaching and learning and in research in the broad field of social sciences at UWC and could focus not only on the reality of climate change and its impacts but also on responses to it, from social, economic, and political perspectives. Engaged scholarship, integration into teaching modules, and the promotion of postgraduate research topics could all benefit from some shared overarching questions. Already, there have been positive responses, and we look forward to taking this conversation further with our Faculty.