Young women speak up

26th November 2021

Chris Seekings reports on a side event from the COP26 conference that explored the role of girls’ education in fighting the climate crisis

Amid the numerous speeches, negotiations and announcements made during the COP26 climate summit, one side event slipped slightly under the radar: ‘Climate justice, education and gender equality – targeting the connections’. Organised by the Malala Fund, it brought together youth activists, world leaders and education experts to discuss these critical and connected issues.

Research suggests that four million girls in low and middle-income countries will not be able to complete their education due to the climate crisis, and this is set to increase to 12.5 million by 2050. To take one example, almost 80,000 children had their education interrupted when Cyclone Idai hit in 2019. Discriminatory social and gender norms mean that, when climate-related disasters strike, young girls are often forced into early marriage and expected to take on childcare and other responsibilities.

“They also face poverty and displacement, and are unable to continue their education,” said Fatou Jeng, founder of Clean Earth Gambia, who kicked off proceedings with a moving speech. “This is the harsh reality we are facing. If we want to fight the climate crisis and talk about climate justice, then we need to ensure that girls’ education is put at the heart of the discussions. We have been talking for a long time, but what we need now is real action.”

A transformative approach

Research shows that every additional year of schooling for girls leads to significant improvement in a country’s resilience to climate-related disasters.

“It should possibly be the biggest priority in the world to make sure that every girl has equal access to education,” said Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon at the event. “We won’t solve the problems the world has until we properly and fully empower girls and women, and we won’t do that without access to education. It is not possible to exaggerate the importance of this.”

Young women from around the world shared stories about the challenges they face, and called for a “gender transformative education system” to advance climate justice. This would see climate curriculums incorporate a social lens and empower girls to engage in climate policies and negotiations.

Quotes from the attendees

Archana Soreng, indigenous youth from India and member of the UN secretary-general’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change

“It’s because of the struggles of my ancestors that I was able to access education, and got the insights into how critical it is for young women to be in policymaking spaces. Studying political science and regulatory governance made me realise that all the literature on climate action and biodiversity conservation is what my tradition is all about. Sadly, it is not written by my community, but by someone else. The current education system makes you feel inferior, and makes you question your traditional knowledge and practices. It’s crucial to integrate education systems with indigenous traditional knowledge and practices when we are talking about climate justice.”

Alice Pataxo, indigenous youth from Brazil and climate advocate from the Malala Fund

“The children of today’s world will be the adults of tomorrow’s world. We are the ones who are going to be faced with the direct impacts of climate change. It’s very important that we learn how to deal with those situations, and do whatever is necessary today to change the history of global warming. It is important to understand that this directly affects our lives. So many of us are suffering. That’s why history has to be made in a different way now, and it all starts with education. I started a climate education too late in life, so I want the other children to have the opportunity that I didn’t have. With education we construct the world today, and change for a better world tomorrow. That’s how we make good leaders – our way.”

Marinel Ubaldo, advocacy officer for ecological justice campaign and youth engagement at Living Laudato Si’ Philippines

“You cannot teach a community of fishermen and farmers how climate change is affecting the wider world. We always have to contextualise it. One of the key factors why we had thousands of people die because of Typhoon Haiyan was because people didn’t really understand what a ‘storm surge’ was. That is a foreign language to us, and if climate change were taught in schools in a way that is contextualised for the community, then people would relate to it and know what the implications are for their livelihoods. Imagine living in a country where every year there is a possibility you will lose your loved ones, and a possibility your house will be washed away. We are living that threat every day. Education is really important for the community to know what to do when there is a disaster, and we should contextualise it so they will understand what it really means for them.”

Overcoming barriers

The audience next heard from a panel of education ministers about the challenges they face in improving education access for girls around the world, and what they are doing to improve the situation.

Agnes Nyalonje, Malawi’s minister of education, explained that a snowstorm destroyed several villages and schools in her country on the day she arrived at COP26. “At this point in time, I am short of 30,000 classrooms for the only 16% eligible enrolled in secondary schools. We don’t have the capacity, and when a storm hits like it did on Monday, it sets us back every time.

“I don’t have the means to stop that, but the global community, particularly the Global North, has something to do with that. I need world leaders to say what they mean and mean what they say, and keep to their commitments – particularly the Global North’s commitments to deliver on emissions and financing. I cannot assure all girls in Malawi have a safe schooling environment until I have the money, and that is the same for most African countries. We need resources so that, by 2063, we achieve our goal of providing 12 years of education for every girl and boy in Malawi. Climate justice in Malawi is synonymous with protecting the education system itself.”

David Sengeh, Sierra Leone’s minister of basic and senior secondary education, spoke about the effects of lockdowns on girls. “I feel like the COP26 organisers should have had young people moderating all sessions, as everyone should know that they need to be at the head of the table. This climate crisis is an everyday challenge. Every time there is a storm in Sierra Leone or wind blows off a roof, it’s kids who are going to stay out of school. And we have learned from other crises, like Ebola, that when you have extended lockdowns it is girls that suffer. The data shows that around 14,000 girls fell pregnant during the Ebola lockdown.

“But we also learned what to do, such as continuous learning, providing hybrid solutions, bringing paper to the communities that need it most. It is about being proactive. We need to engage the students because they are the ones in the community who are going to have to build the trees that are going to strengthen our water catchment areas. There cannot be anything more powerful than having young people at the table to design the solutions.”

Baroness Barran MBE, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the UK’s Department of Education, explained how the global approach to education must change. “We have heard today, so powerfully, the impact of not educating girls. There is also an opportunity to really fast-forward the rights of women and girls. There is a huge economic and societal opportunity. In this country, in engineering, only about 23% of jobs are taken by girls. We have announced our draft sustainability and climate education strategy to address that.

“Education prepares women to develop climate solutions, secure green jobs and address issues”

“I was so touched by the comments about indigenous communities, knowledge that is sensitive to different communities around the world, and the need to give them the power to make changes in their school and to be recognised by the work we do – which is why we have also announced new climate leaders awards for young people that we hope will really celebrate the commitment that so many of you show.”

Call to action

Thousands of young leaders around the world have made five recommendations:

  1. Recognise and prioritise the role of quality education in climate action
  2. Implement a gender transformative approach to education
  3. Deliver the commitments of the Gender Action Plan of COP25
  4. Include children and youth in COP official negotiations
  5. Put young people and gender transformative educational approaches at the heart of developing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

In a final message, Malala Yousafzai, co-founder of the Malala Fund, said:

“For some of our world leaders, this may just be background noise, but for girls and young women, they see the hardest effects of climate change, and the decisions our leaders make today will determine their future. We cannot hope to build resilience for the decades ahead unless we educate our children – especially girls.

“Education prepares women to develop climate solutions, secure green jobs and address issues at the heart of this crisis. Girls and young women are demanding action and calling for climate education in their schools, and asking for the tools they need to help their communities adapt, to develop innovative solutions, and imagine a future where they can thrive.”

Image credit | Getty | Christopher-Seekings | Malin-Fezehai-for-Malala-Fund


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