Image by Jekaterina Saveljeva of FemLens www.femlens.com
To further impress the need for a massive international cooperative effort to drastically change our economic systems, we need to discuss as best we can the role of women in society everywhere.
Specifically, we need to look at the role of education for women in the upcoming fight to reverse a changing climate. As in every other action we need to tackle, this one also requires a swift about-turn in the general mindset of humanity.
In 2017 an international working group consisting of a diverse collection of economists, climate scientists, entrepreneurs and advocates gathered to carefully draw up 100 solutions to combat climate change. It is known as Project Drawdown (link). Education of women and girls was number 6, way ahead of well-known flagship approaches such as renewable energy and afforestation (10 and 15 respectively). Why? Because educated women tend to marry later, have smaller more healthy families, enjoy greater health themselves, are more economically self-sufficient, and can combine the income earned with spouses to be reinvested back into families. Research definitively backs this up (ref). Western countries have enjoyed the benefits of educated women for years, particularly northern European countries where education has driven a change in family dynamics that have blurred the boundaries between expectations for either sexes in the home. This is believed to have contributed to higher female representation in government in countries such as Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland (ref).
Importantly, in parts of the world where a changing climate is going to have the most effects (at least initially), the developing world, educated women are an extra tool to fight and adapt to changing climate patterns and shocks of extreme weather events. The Project Drawdown authors noted that at least 62 million girls around the world (UNESCO estimates as much as 130 million) are currently denied access to education for a variety of reasons, mostly socio-economic and cultural. Note what their publication states should be done to address this:
- Make school affordable;
- Help girls overcome health barriers;
- Reduce the time and distance to get to school; and
- Make schools more girl-friendly.
The first three can be dealt with by targeted inward investment to developing countries (and by a commitment from receiving governments to implement the required measures) to provide free and quality education for all, and improve medical care and transport infrastructure. But it’s the fourth point that is going to be the hardest to deal with. That final point is the cultural and socio-economic road block preventing women from fully realising their true potential in many societies, including western ones. By making schools an unwelcoming, and often inhospitable, environment for female students, priority is granted to males, and women and girls are forced to stay at home and home-make, as it were. On the other hand, in parts of the world where even if women and girls can go to a school and wish to do so, extreme poverty can prevent them from realising this.
The problem is how we think about women. Globally we need to stop treating women as second-class citizens. We need to stop thinking of them as the enemy, as a threat, as people who are lesser than men. There is a certain western centrist opinion that this issue only affects other countries, less “intellectually developed ones” where women are relegated to secondary roles in society. This is an erroneous view, saturated in racism, and born from a clumsy embrace of national exceptionalism. In fact, the evidence that females are viewed as the subordinate gender in our society is all around us. I will discuss two prominent examples, but there are many more aside.
Firstly, there is the church, and religion in general. In most of the major agricultural religions the role of women varies greatly, the variations originating from inconsistencies within the respective religious texts. Each religion too varies widely in how the roles of women are interpreted. Usually though, the experiences of women in religions tends to be more negative than men, and they are required to be submissive. Sikhism is probably the only one that succinctly states that men and women are equal, with women even being allowed to be practice as a Granthis – a religious official in Sikhism who can lead worship, similar (but not equal) to a Christian priest (ref). Of course, in one of Europe’s major religions, Catholicism, women cannot be priests. If ever an example were needed to prove entrenched misogyny still exists, then this particular religion is an excellent case in point.
In 2018 intelligent people I know (including women) still attended Catholic churches the country over (Ireland) where a man wearing white robes stands up and tells them that they must love a god and a system that disallows women to be leading members of that very church. This man will also tell them they cannot have sexual relations with same members of their gender, they must nor use contraception, and that they must discourage divorce, and they cannot under any circumstances think about having an abortion, no matter what the reason for the pregnancy (ref). It is notable that all of these restrictions can adversely affect a women’s quality of life more than a man’s, as well as being restrictions on everything we actually need to embrace if we are to change our current course.
In 2018 Ireland voted overwhelmingly to allow a change in the constitution to facilitate abortions, and it was rightly viewed as a decisive victory for female rights. Yet the lead up to the vote was contentious, often vicious, and many women were among those campaigning for a rejection of the constitutional amendment. It was clear too that a large majority of them were campaigning from a religious (mostly Catholic) perspective. It is true that the church has a severely diminished influence in Ireland in modern times – despite the church actively campaigning for a no vote the vote was comprehensively passed by 66.4% to 33.6%. Nevertheless, it remains perplexing when large sections of the female population fight to uphold values of religions that relegate them to subordinate roles.
We need to ask; for what purposes have obsolete agricultural religions in a modern society that is facing difficult and challenging times as we move into the next decade? We urgently need to seriously consider the changes we need to make as a planet together, not as a country, in order to prevent civilisation as we know it from collapsing. The churches or religions have nothing useful to say or offer on this. Their views and teachings on everything from women to society in general are archaic and void and based on texts describing non-existent worlds written in times whose values have little bearing on those of today. Yet they exist still and exert considerable influence on a wider human psyche that often makes decisions based on the cultural artefacts of the particular creeds.
Secondly, there is politics. Lately there is a discernible and significant shift in the use of misogyny as a tool to foment demographic anger by political movements the world over, particularly among the populist movements. All the recent advances in populist politics have employed a range of misogynist overtones, some subtle, some blatant and loud, and obscene. Donal Trump in America, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duarte in The Philippines, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Victor Orban in Hungary, Vladamir Putin in Russia; all leaders of powerful influential countries, and they have all presented themselves as paradigms of machismo with frequent attacks on women and female leaders. Some of their misogyny takes form as renewed restrictions on birth control, and efforts to relegate women to more traditional subordinate roles with emphasis on childbirth. This is what is happening in Hungry and Poland most currently (ref). Others such as Trump, Bolsonaro and Duarte are more blatant with proclamations promoting sexual assault and even rape (ref, ref, ref).
What is curious, and of course disturbing, is that this use of misogyny as a political tool has worked. Large swathes of voters do not have a problem (or enough of a problem) with leaders who manifest misogynist sentiments, or that these sentiments might subsequently bleed into policy. People have voted for them, after they joke about rape or sexual assault, and they won. At Trump rallies thousands of people chanted, in the most sinister fashion seen for years in a western democracy, “Lock her up, lock her up, lock her up”. This was of course referring to Hilary Clinton’s allegedly illegal use of certain email servers – an issue which Trump used to great effect to fire up a dark misogynist monster that spread through participants at his rallies like a virulent flu.
While Trumps misogyny is repugnant, that of Duarte in the Philippines and Bolsonaro in Brazil sits like cancers on the respective collective national soul. In the past Bolosonaro said the following:
“I had four sons, but then I had a moment of weakness, and the fifth was a girl.”
“I’m not going to rape you, because you’re very ugly” – to a female representative in Congress.
Duarte has said these following statements:
“There’s a new order coming from the mayor, ‘We will not kill you. We will just shoot you in the vagina”, referring to how his troops should attack female rebels.
“Was I mad because of the rape? Yes, that’s one. But, she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first. What a waste”. Referring to the rape and murder of an Australian woman in a prison riot 1989. He was the Mayor he is referring to.
For good measure lets have a look at a Trump quote:
“I am going to be dating her in 10 years. Can you believe it?” In reference to a 10 year old girl he was eyeing in Trump Tower in 1992.
Putin of Russia has never been so reckless in his sexism, but it is there within. He once said the following about the then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton following US state department criticism of Russian involvement in Ukraine:
“It’s better not to argue with women……………………….When people push boundaries too far, it’s not because they are strong, but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman”.
Salvini of Italy went one stage worse at a rally in Cremona in 2016 and compared an opposing female politician to an inflated sex doll (link). In scenes reminiscent of Trump rallies, his audience went wild. His government in 2019 will attempt to introduce legislations that could eliminate child support and prosecute women who accuse their husbands of domestic violence but fail to have their husbands convicted.
It can be argued, weakly, that these comments were from single individuals, and that it was just their personal opinions blurted out in the heat of the moment to raise a laugh. That line of defence would be unacceptable even if they were the random taunts of a crank in the local pub. But these men are all now world leaders, winning with large majorities in elections (except for Trump, who actually lost the majority vote). They did not, in anyway, hide their misogyny. And as can be observed, this misogyny is working its way into national policies.
So, if women are crucial to the fight against climate change, and if we need to mobilise education initiatives in the developing regions for women and girls, how do we do it when women are subordinated within the wider human psychological mindset? Because of the political developments described above, advances in women’s rights are in danger of being eroded to varying degrees across the world. Feminist and other rights movements are currently fighting a rear-guard defence to keep what they have, instead of building on the equality already achieved. Male chauvinism is entrenching, and institutions in the world’s most powerful countries are now controlled by men who view women as objects of threat, or as baby makers, or for sexual gratification only.
The problem is these are the very countries whom the planet needs to lead the fight against climate change. These are the strong ones, the rich ones. These are the countries that should be promoting the virtue of education to empower women to control their bodies and their lives. They need to be calling for smaller family sizes, not larger. World human population reduction is seen as crucial in the climate fight, and although birth rates have declined in the west, due largely to education, in developing nations in central Africa, Asia and the Middle East populations are growing fast (ref). And it is also these regions of the world where already challenged food production and water systems are predicted to be among the worst affected by an increasingly warmer planet.
If we are to work together as a planet to change how we interact with it, we need to radically shift our expectations about many issues. One of the most important of them is to re-evaluate what many people see as fundamental to society: That men are more valuable than women. That now needs to be realised for what it is – a counter productive and dangerous idea, a falsehood that need to be left behind in the past.