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Climate Change is About… Women

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Sowing resilience to patriarchy and climate change in peri-urban Bolivia

In 2014 two Democracy Center colleagues, Leny Olivera and Carey Averbook, worked together over several months to produce the project ‘Climate Change is About…Women’, documenting the realities of four residents of ‘María Auxiliadora’. This women-led community on the edge of Cochabamba was set up as a response to the violence women experience in their lives, especially in peri-urban environments. The photographs illustrate many facets of the women’s lives and can be seen alongside excerpts from candid interviews conducted during the project and other writings. The material covers themes of patriarchy and violence against women, community organising and management, food production and preservation and the conservation of resources, amongst others. The project seeks to show in profound and subtle ways how climate change is altering people’s daily lives – for example through rising food prices – and how the coping strategies and resilience which women have developed in other areas of their lives can be brought to bear on the climate crisis, especially in a context of community and collective endeavour.

Introducing the Project: Climate Change is About…Women

by Jim Shultz

For more than two decades the Democracy Center has worked with people all over the world to help them understand and have an impact on the issues that affect their lives. As an organization founded in California and based in Bolivia for 16 years, we have also tried to help people understand the ways in which our disparate worlds are interconnected. Today no issue connects us more or is more need of clear-eyed citizen understanding and action than the deepening crisis of global climate change.

Bolivia is a ground-zero point for climate change impacts; melting glaciers, spreading drought, deadly flooding and climate migration are already major forces. To bring those stories to a global audience we have produced videos on glacier loss and food sovereignty, have created a multi-media website on the climate crisis and water, and have published widely-read reports on issues such as protection of the vanishing rain forests. With the project ‘Climate Change is About…Women’ we want to help people understand two aspects of climate change. Firstly, when we talk about climate change and its impacts we are really talking about women, especially in the global South. Second, “climate resilience” is a term with huge meaning into which we can gain insight by looking up close at four women’s experiences of a special community and its reality.

A view of the sprawling southern zone of Cochabamba, Bolivia, where rural migrants face many challenges living on the margins of the city.

Low-income countries across the world are by far the most vulnerable to the coming impacts of climate change and in those countries the communities often hit hardest live in the ‘peri-urban’ areas outside major cities. Separated from the traditions of self-reliance in the countryside, poorly connected to the services and infrastructure of the city, and populated mostly by people forced to move by economic circumstance, these are the urban areas positioned to suffer most from climate change’s deep impacts. And in those communities, it is the women who most shoulder those burdens, as they feed and care for families in a changing world.

The Community of Maria Auxiliadora on the outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia, sits at that perfect storm of climate change vulnerability, but with a twist. Maria Auxiliadora is a community led by women, a neighborhood where only women are allowed to own homes. Here the idea of resilience has deep meaning, and not just in relation to climate change. Resilience is about something other than ‘adaptation.’  Adaptation is what we do when faced with a reality we cannot control and we alter our lives to conform to it.  Resilience is how we bounce back from a circumstance we do not control and seek to reclaim our lives as wholly and as fully intact as possible.

“With women there is a lot of violence, but in this neighborhood there is very little. Whenever there is violence, a group of women always get together. They whistle when they hear husbands beating their wives. In that moment they call the police, they have them take the husband to jail.” – Isabel Ugarte Huanale

Throughout 2014 two Democracy Center team members, Leny Olivera of Bolivia and Carey Averbook of the U.S., traveled over and over again to Maria Auxiliadora, sitting with these four women of the community, learning their stories, and understanding the ways that their histories as women impact on how they have joined together to address everyday challenges.

The women of these narratives have learned strategies of resilience from other experiences in their lives, such as living with violent husbands and having just one room in which to house their families. Climate change is another act of violence in their lives. It is a reality created by someone other than themselves that impacts harmfully upon them. These women draw on the wisdom gained from their past experiences, applying it in a different context and coping with this new, distinct form of violence. Resilience isn’t a technical process. It is a personal and spiritual capacity, full of wisdom and dignity, that gives people the ability to confront and bounce back from any situation of hardship.

The stories of Irene, Isabel, Rosa and Maria Eugenia, captured here in photographs and their own words, offer an understanding of how other hardships these four women have been through, such as poverty, have given them a deep ‘wisdom of resilience’ that they now apply to the challenges being generated by climate change – for example by saving water and other resources, or growing gardens. They speak to issues such as how we become more self-reliant in the food we consume and how communities make choices to be resilient together. Despite these achievements, the violence in these women’s lives continues to be a challenge for the community.

“In the community, I live better than I did before. Because before I didn’t have a place even to sow seed, I didn’t have my own land. Now I have space to make a garden.” – Irene Cardozo

It has become a truism that climate change has brought all of humanity into the same fragile boat. But we do not all sit in the same seats on that boat and our vulnerability is far from equal. We hope that these images and stories, as well as Leny’s and Carey’s accompanying writings, will both educate and inspire those who want to understand what the crisis we face across a planet means for a few women here in this unique corner of that planet. Because when we talk about how climate change impacts us in different ways in the global South, we are really first talking about women like these.

Climate Change is About… Women
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