Elize Soer – researcher in the Gender Justice Project (Irish Aid) at the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G) University of Pretoria
The aim of this piece is to provide a critique of the ideologies and assumptions that currently inform policy recommendations concerning gender and climate change in Africa. Various scholars have critiqued the same policy documents for, amongst other things, their narrow conceptualisation of gender since “gender” is often conflated with “women”. Although this critique is noted, there are other problematic aspects of the ways in which gender and climate change have been framed that have received less attention. In the Global North we have seen the individualisation and commodification of both feminism and strategies to combat climate change, as demonstrated by the notion of “ethical” or “sustainable” consumerism. This piece aims to link the emergence of these developments in the Global North with their “underside” in the Global South.
To reach this objective, the piece will discuss the rhetoric of “empowerment” that is generally used in relation to climate change and gender in Africa. Although it is certainly an improvement that some of the gendered dimensions of climate change are now considered in policy documents, the following critique will demonstrate that the ideologies and assumptions that currently underpin policy formulations in this regard are problematic and will not enable the vast majority of the people on the planet to deal with the challenges associated with climate change.
The literature on gender and climate change is largely centred on three themes. The first is the effect that climate change will have on women in the Global South. Poor women of colour in the Global South and particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa are generally portrayed as the most vulnerable to climate change. The second theme focuses on the virtuousness of women in the Global North, who are apparently more environmentally conscious than their male counterparts. According to Seema Arora-Jonsson, these two themes reinforce North-South biases by “reiterating statements about poor women in the South and the pro-environmental women of the North” (Arora-Jonsson, 2011: 744). The third theme, which Arora-Jonsson did not identify, concerns women in the Global South, but places the focus on their agency. In order to avoid seeing women as mere victims, this approach focuses on the intimate knowledge that rural women have of their local environments and on the roles they play in the conservation of biodiversity.
The United Nations’ Resource Guide on Gender and Climate Change presents a quintessential example of a text that framed women in the Global South as both innocent victims and heroic protectors of ecosystems. The document recognised “the importance of women’s traditional knowledge and practices” and highlighted “the contributions women have made to biodiversity conservation” (UNDP, 2009: 45). It also focused on “the connection between women’s roles and their potential contribution to conserving the environment and achieving sustainable development” (UNDP, 2009: 44). According to this line of argument, women have to be empowered so that they can participate more effectively in “indigenous and local communities”, use their special indigenous knowledge to help conserve the environment, and ultimately contribute to “sustainable development” (UNDP, 2009: 43).
This framing of gender and climate change is highly problematic for various reasons. Firstly, it is ahistorical and assumes that “traditional” gender roles have remained largely unchanged since time immemorial and that gender divides are similar across societies and continents. Although it is generally noted that women’s vulnerabilities and expertise are not innate or “natural”, but expressions of power relations and social and historical inequalities (Pearse, 2017: 3), it is often assumed that a gender binary existed universally and across different time periods. As Rebecca Pearse noted, “the social construction of women’s ‘vulnerability’ and ‘virtuousness’ reinforces static ideas about fixed gender roles, or worse, reinforces the perception that women are intrinsically defenceless and closer to nature” (Pearse, 2017: 4-5). The fact that the ‘”vulnerability and virtuousness” paradigm is still prevalent in policy documents is especially worrisome because it emphasises the vulnerability of women without discussing the injustices and systems of oppression that put them in a vulnerable position in the first place. If the causes of inequality and vulnerability are not taken into account, suggested solutions will not only fail to address the problems related to climate change but could also exacerbate injustices (Djoudi et al. 2016: 428).
Although many gender scholars have critiqued the fact that “gender” is often used as a synonym for “women” or framed within a women-versus-men dichotomy (Djoudi et al. 2016: 248; MacGregor, 2010: 224), the climate change policy documents that refer to gender are still based on this view. As Sherilyn MacGregor noted: “Rather than theorising gender as a social and political relationship between people with masculine and feminine identities, most analyses of gender and climate change fall into the familiar trap that gender-means-women” (MacGregor, 2010: 224). The first problem with this approach is that women’s experiences and actions are seen as separate from the broader social, cultural and political framework within which norms are embedded. Moreover, the ideological constructs and values that shape gender inequalities are ignored, while the focus is placed on impacts and technological fixes such as genetically modified seeds.
Just one example of many studies that used this approach was How resilient are farming households and communities to a changing climate in Africa? A gender-based perspective. The study reported that female-headed household in East Africa were less likely than male-headed households to plant “improved” seeds (Perez et al. 2015: 103). The authors noted that “when assessing the vulnerability of households and individuals, it is critical to look beyond a simple binary categorization of men/women and use a broader framework to assess the ‘intersectionality’ of gender with other social determinants” (Perez et al. 2015: 96). However, the study still focused on improving women’s access to labour-saving technology as a way of “empowering” them or, as the authors put it, a means to “build their adaptive capacity”.
The notion of “empowering” poor women from the Global South is a core theme in almost every policy document related to gender and climate change. An apt example of this is the United Nations’ Overview of Linkages between Gender and Climate Change. The 7-page document mentioned “empowerment” eight times and the recommendations for achieving this aim include “investing in women” and providing gender-conscious financing (UNDP, 2012: 5). Similarly, South Africa’s National Policy Framework for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality suggested increasing women’s involvement in the economy and thus their earning power (The Office on the Status of Women, 2002).
South Africa’s submission on gender and climate change to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) still echoed this view seventeen years later. The plan aimed to contribute to women’s empowerment by drawing them into the “productive sector” of the economy (South Africa, 2019: 2). The World Bank’s report on Energy, Gender and Development presents a particularly pertinent example of the women-as-gender “empowerment” paradigm. Although the document focused on individual energy interventions, it noted that sustainable change will be achieved through the “empowerment of women” which would “enable them to represent themselves” (Köhlin et al. 2011: ix). The report mentioned that much of the literature on gender and energy provision suggested that providing electricity to rural communities would reduce the amount of time that women spend on domestic tasks and would thus promote women’s empowerment by allowing girls more time to focus on their education. The report also noted that providing energy to rural households would allow women to watch television, which could allegedly contribute to their emancipation and empowerment. The claim was based on a study by Robert Jensen and Emily Oster on the influence of cable television on women’s status in India. Jensen and Oster argued that access to cable television resulted in a decrease in women’s tolerance of spousal abuse, which stemmed from the “imitation of role models of emancipated women in fictional TV dramas” (Köhlin et al. 2011: 39).
The World Bank report is the perfect entry point for a critique of the empowerment paradigm. The rhetoric of empowerment provides a progressive gloss to policy documents while it does not substantially challenge power relations and rearticulates and reproduces capitalist and patriarchal values. The term also impedes structural transformation by confining agency to an individual level (Riordan, 2001:284). It is important to note that this individualising strategy is not limited to gendered climate change policy, but must be analysed within a broader context. Firstly, in relation to climate change, many scholars have commented on the “sustainable consumption” or “ethical consumption” model promoted by brands such as Nike and H&M. For example, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argued that the ethical consumption paradigm personalises guilt and responsibility and creates the impression that “it is not the entire organization of the economy which is to blame, but our subjective attitude which needs to change” (Žižek, 2010: 22). When products are branded as “ethical” or “sustainable” consumers are convinced that they are contributing to environmental sustainability, which in turn sustains the destructive consumerist capitalism that is largely responsible for the climate crisis. The ethical consumption paradigm thus promises a solution to the systemic contradictions of capitalism without challenging the system itself (Carrington, Zwick & Neville, 2016: 21). Moreover, this strategy places the responsibility of dealing with climate change in the hands of individual consumers and makes it more difficult to hold the corporations who have benefited the most from capitalism and the plundering of the environment accountable.
Similar to corporate attempts to individualise actions against climate change, a particular kind of feminism has become popular in North America and Western Europe. The notion of “the empowered woman” has been broadcasted on T-shirts, in new films and in the lyrics of pop songs. Brands like Pantene started to use feminist rhetoric to sell their products, for example the commercial for Pantene’s shine-boosting shampoo ended with an encouraging “Don’t Let Labels Hold You Back… Be Strong and Shine” (Grose, 2013). Likewise, in 2015, Katy Perry branded her signature fragrance, Killer Queen, as “royal, rebellious, and feminist” (Zeisler, 2016: 1).
This brand of feminism has been called “pop feminism”, “white feminism”, “feel-good feminism” and “marketplace feminism” and, according to Andi Zeisler, it is a popular iteration of feminism that is decontextualised and depoliticised (Zeisler, 2016: 1). The British cultural theorist Angela McRobbie noted that this new post-feminist discourse draws on a vocabulary of “empowerment” and “choice” which are “then converted into a much more individualistic discourse” (McRobbie, 2009:1). This individualised feminism presented the “empowered woman” as an autonomous economic actor capable of enjoying the rituals of femininity through the products manufactured by capitalism and consumer culture. Summarily, if women could be empowered through their participation in the “productive economy” and consumer culture, then there would be is no reason to challenge the principles upon which capitalist systems are based.
Both ethical consumerism and marketplace feminism have been contextualised within a framework of neoliberal governmentality in the West. McRobbie noted that marketplace feminism often functions under “the guise of modern and enlightened ‘gender aware’ forms of governmentality,” (McRobbie, 2009: 2). Similarly, Ruby Agatha Utting placed ethical consumerism within a framework of neoliberal governmentality. In this case, Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality was understood as a historically specific normative, institutional and personal mode of rule. Institutional and normative practices are informed by specific rationalities that produce and legitimate “certain subjectivities and understandings as true,” (Utting, 2019). Utting argued that neoliberal forms of governmentality promote individualism and, in the context of a reduction in state services, encourage subjects to practice “personal responsibility” and “self-care”. This framework allows us to see how consumers are encouraged to take personal responsibility for social improvement by adjusting their consumption habits. Conversely, it is important to remember that corporations increasingly presented themselves as being driven by an ethical impetus in response to consumers’ growing awareness of the environmental and social effects of the ways in which their products were manufactured. As corporations positioned themselves as agents of social improvement, we also saw the rise of an individualised approach to social change. Even as environmentalists protested against the capitalist exploitation of the environment, ecological awareness became branded as a new lifestyle.
In order to feel that they are contributing to ecological sustainability, subjects are encouraged to buy products ranging from organic food to Fair Trade coffee and “sustainable” fashion. Consequently, consumers are not just buying products, but can feel that they are simultaneously contributing to something meaningful. Paradoxically, ethical consumerism encourages consumers to participate in large collective projects, such as poverty alleviation, through highly individualised forms of consumption. To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, whether someone is buying feminist shampoo or a sneaker made from recycled plastic, it is not just about what they are buying, but also about the ideology that they are buying into (Žižek, 2014).
I would argue that the analyses of ethical consumerism and marketplace feminism are relevant to wealthier consumers in the Global South and in South Africa particularly. However, the rest of this text will focus instead on the “underside” of this so-called neo-liberal ideology and the way that it has been applied in Africa.
Before I can explore this topic, it is first necessary to distinguish between neo-liberalism as a doctrine and neoliberalism as a regime of policies. The policies associated with neoliberalism, including the promotion of free enterprise, tariff elimination and currency deregulation, are very seldom applied in practice in the Global North. The closest incarnation of neo-liberal policies would probably be the structural adjustment reforms that international lending agencies and banks imposed on African states in the 1980s, which involved the removal of tariffs, deregulating currency markets and the dismantling of parastatals. Nonetheless, the policies adopted by different states still differed from the doctrine of neo-liberalism “since neoliberal doctrine, if applied consistently, implies a world that could never, in fact, exist,” (Ferguson, 2009: 170).
Even if neo-liberalism does not exist in praxis, it can still hold ideological authority. As Marnie Holborow noted “the vision of the world that an ideology presents can clash with what is actually happening and this can lead to its seemingly accepted status being questioned,” (Holborow, 2007: 53). Holborow’s observation rings true since we have seen neoliberalism challenged many times. One can also interpret neoliberalism as a type of rationality in the Foucauldian sense, as Utting did (Utting, 2019). This differs from neoliberalism as an ideology since it is more related to mechanisms of government and modes of creating subjects than to economic dogmas.
With these differences in mind, we can begin to consider how neo-liberal ideologies have been applied in relation to African countries, especially in connection to policy proposals regarding gender and climate change. From the policy documents that have already been discussed, it is evident that African women are presented as individualised agents that have to be empowered. Empowerment is also generally narrowly defined as enabling women to become active participants in the “productive” economy or by assisting women in the roles they play in sustaining their households and communities. This assistance usually involves supplying women with microfinance or with technological fixes that would ostensibly make them more resilient.
A typical example of the way “empowerment” is used can be seen in Agnes Babugura’s report Gender and Climate Change: South Africa Case Study, which stated that “women need to be supported so as to enable them to become active participants developing and designing adaptation strategies” and that this could be accomplished by “enhancing their ability to access credit, risk-management instruments and effective support networks,” (Babugura, 2010: 68). It is also implied that, following her financial liberation, the African woman (obviously a homogenous category) will become more autonomous and will then be able to represent herself.
Again, the United Nations’ Resource Guide on Gender and Climate Change provides a perfect example of this line of argument. The report stated that:
Very few NAPAs recognize women as important agents in adaptation activities. One of the exceptions worth mentioning is Malawi, whose NAPA recognizes gender as an important factor and stipulates that: ‘Several interventions are proposed that target women in highly vulnerable situations, including: (i) empowerment of women through access to microfinance to diversify earning potential…’ (UNDP, 2009: 47).
Not only do policy recommendations such as microfinance provision reflect a neoliberal framework, but girls and women from the Global South are often conceptualised as “investments” or “underused resources”. In fact, references to the low level of “human resources” in “developing countries” are ubiquitous in documents that discuss gender and climate change in the Global South.
I will cite just one example of many. In Oxfam’s edition on Gender, Development, and Climate Change, three different authors commented on the “minimal human resources”, “the limited human resources” and the lack of capacity to “manage technical, financial, and human resources,” in “least-developed countries” (Masika, 2002: 16, 31, 99). This example not only demonstrates the often patronising attitudes adopted by development organisations, but also the ways in which neo-liberal language permeates discussions of climate change and gender in Africa.
It is also this economically reductionist framework that allows everything from ecosystems and forests to knowledge and human beings to be classified as “resources”. Moreover, as Angela McRobbie noted, “this governmental vocabulary of self-responsibility also personalises disadvantage and marks out poverty and economic hardship as issues connected with family and dysfunctionality rather than as socially generated phenomena,” (McRobbie, 2009: 77).
Yet, James Ferguson warned against the uncritical application of the ideas of neoliberalism to Africa. The ideological celebration of markets and economic growth has become evident in many African states, including South Africa. However, the new technologies of government often associated with neo-liberal governmentality in the West have been very limited in Africa. As Ferguson noted, neoliberalism in Africa is not so much associated with “an art of government” as with “a crude battering open of Third World markets,” (Ferguson, 2009: 173). Although policy documents concerning Africa often employ the language of neo-liberalism, a more cynical interpretation reveals that the strategies that have been used to encourage “development” in Africa are often not very new or very liberal.
There is plethora of research on so-called “neo” colonialism in Africa and an in-depth discussion of the topic falls outside of the scope of this short piece. Instead I will focus on a colonial continuity that is specifically related to policy documents concerning gender and climate change and which links the marketplace feminism that has become popular in the Global North with its “underside” in the Global South. Here it is necessary to invoke the World Bank’s claim that access to television would empower women in the Global South because they would then be able to imitate “role models of emancipated women in fictional TV dramas,” (Köhlin et al. 2011: 39).
The first assumption that underpins the above-mentioned statement is that women in the western world are “emancipated”. The western woman is seen as empowered because she has the right to work and seemingly has access to a range of sexual freedoms. Consequently, western women are encouraged to “conceive of themselves as grateful subjects of modern states and cultures which permit such freedoms unlike repressive or fundamentalist regimes,” (McRobbie, 2009: 27). The assumption that follows from this is that women outside of America and Western Europe are the victims of oppressive cultures.
The notion that women are more empowered in the West has long been used to support notions of Western superiority and civilisation. Colonial theories of cultures and races ordered societies into an evolutionary continuum in which Europe was conceptualised as the culminating point of historical evolution. When Britain was carrying out its colonial mission in the twentieth century, Victorian womanhood and gendered value structures were considered to be a benchmark of civilisation. Somewhat ironically, the Victorian male establishment was attempting to oppose an increasingly vocal feminism within Britain while redirecting and utilising the language of feminism to validate colonialism.
It is crucial to note that women were not necessarily more liberated or empowered in Britain than in colonised societies and in many instances “local colonial authorities enhanced the power of male communal elders and officials and imposed or supported laws that reduced the power of women,” (Soer, 2019: 75). Nonetheless, we can clearly see how the colonial idea that homogeneously oppressed women in the Global South should be empowered along the lines of “the modern woman” in the Global North has remained in place. The “traditional women” in Africa can evidently be made modern through the intervention of western organisations or through imitating the actions of “modern western women”.
This belief is best reflected in policy documents that aim to empower women in the Global South so that they can contribute to the “development” of their societies, which presumably means that they must accomplish the impossible task of becoming Western Europe.
The aim of this piece has not been to contest the argument that women in the Global South will be particularly vulnerable to the risks associated with climate change. There are numerous facts that seem to support this claim. For example, the World Health Organisation estimated that women are about fourteen times more likely to die during natural disasters than men (WHO, 2003). Almost every policy document on climate change and gender noted that women will have to travel further distances to collect water and firewood and that they will be especially vulnerable to food insecurity.
Impoverished women from the Global South are also expected to make up the vast majority of the people displaced by climate change since, presently, 80% of refugees are female. Displaced women are also vulnerable to sexual violence while they are on the move and while they are in refugee camps (MacGregor, 2010: 226). Neither has the aim been to disprove the notion that men and women from different societies will hold different knowledges because of socially constructed gender roles. Instead, the aim has been to show that a policy framework that focuses on the vulnerabilities and virtues of women in the Global South is problematic.
As previously noted, this paradigm emphasises the vulnerabilities of women without considering the structures that made them vulnerable in the first place. Although the concept of “empowerment” is evoked in almost every policy document concerning gender and climate change, these documents rarely ask “who currently wields power?” Vulnerability is thus conceptualised as a problem of the disempowered instead of a problem caused by those who wield power.
This is not a novel problem in the development literature, which generally frames Africa as a place of deficiency. Poverty in Africa is conceptualised in terms of a lack of market access, a lack of technology, a lack of income etc. However, this is just one side of the coin. Just as we must speak of power when we speak of disempowerment, we must also speak of wealth when we are speaking about poverty. Climate change has made it abundantly clear that we live in a finite world, thus we cannot only focus on the fact that women in the Global South do not have adequate access to land and “natural resources”. We must also problematise the fact that particular people, corporations and nations have appropriated vast amounts of resources. In the words of Wolfgang Sachs, “this approach has definitely turned out to be one-sided; it is not just the poor but also the rich, and their economy as well, that have to be called into question. At any rate, the quest for fairness in a finite world means in the first place changing the rich, not the poor. Poverty alleviation, in other words, cannot be separated from wealth alleviation,” (Sachs, 2009: xiv).
From the preceding discussion it is evident that many scholars have challenged narrow conceptualisations of gender and empowerment as well as the individualisation of broader social ills. However, policy documents have rarely taken these critiques into account. If these critiques continue to be ignored, policy recommendations will leave the vast majority of the people on the planet severely unprepared for the challenges that climate change will bring. The current policy recommendations concerning gender and climate change in Africa will simply “empower” a few women to participate in a (post) colonial capitalist system that disempowered them in the first place. Summarily, microfinance and soap operas will not enable women or anyone else to deal with severe droughts and cyclones.
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 For example, Nike advertised its Flyleather shoe range as made from the “most sustainable engineered leather material ever” and as “created using leather manufacturing scraps that would otherwise go to landfill,” (Nike, 2017). H&M, along with many other fashion retailers, has launched a “sustainable” range so people can “both look and feel good,” (H&M, n.d.)
 I use the term “underside” here to evoke the work of decolonial scholars such as Walter Mignolo (2011) who argued that modernity and coloniality are two sides of the same coin. According to this theorisation, coloniality is the dark underside of modernity and modernity would not be possible without coloniality This challenges the perception that the Global South can or should develop along the lines of the Global North.
 National Adaptation Programmes of Action are programmes established during the 2001 Conference of the Parties that are supposed to help “least developed countries” to addresses challenges associated with climate change (UNFCCC, 2020).
 Although the world is commonly classified into categories of “developed” and “developing” countries, this model has been the subject of critique since it ignores the role that colonialism and exploitation played in the “development” of Western Europe and North America. Unless “developing” countries can find another planet to colonise, they will not be able to follow the development model of the Global North. As Wolfgang Sachs noted, “Since the Euro-Atlantic model of wealth emerged under exceptional conditions, it cannot be generalized to the world at large. In other words, the model requires social exclusion by its very structure; it is unfit to underpin equity on a global scale,” (Sachs, 2009: xi).