October 11th is International Day of the Girl, a day to acknowledge and be inspired by the formidable climate advocacy of girls and young women. In this blog post, we discuss the centrality of girls and young women in contemporary climate action, and the disconnection between their advocacy and representation in decision-making circles. We want to seize the opportunity to propose some avenues that could advance their meaningful inclusion in decision-making processes.
Anthropogenic climate change increases the vulnerability of women and girls to food insecurity, water scarcity, heat-related mortality and morbidity, and climate-induced displacement and migration. For girls and young women, climate change can also increase their vulnerability to gender-based violence and escalate the pressure to leave school to support their families and communities.
Given what is at stake, girls and young women are often at the frontlines of climate action, leading mass protests and strikes, as well as spearheading grassroots movements in their local communities. Within Canada, in 2020, a majority of the 30-under-30 Corporate Knights sustainability leaders were young women. Grassroots organizing, in particular, has been pivotal to climate action. These movements increase climate awareness, help build community resilience, and call for future-oriented climate policies. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a young woman climate activist is Greta Thunberg, who, at the age of 15, sparked a global movement that galvanized millions of young people to march and demand for climate action. But many other girls and young women, including local activists like Autumn Peltier, Sarah Hanson and Manvi Bhalla, are making waves to meaningfully address climate change.
Despite the presence of girls and young women in climate activism, the policy-making space remains largely inaccessible and is still missing necessary avenues to participation. Women have been largely absent in global climate change policy planning and negotiations, though the Paris Agreement was a significant game changer that still leaves work to be done. In Canada, research indicates that participation of women in environmental governance and employment is lower compared to their male counterparts.
There is little domestic focus on empowering girls and young women to take part in climate leadership and decision-making. Canada’s first Feminist International Assistance Policy is a welcome effort to support international initiatives around “[mitigating and adapting] to climate change, [advancing] women’s leadership and decision making and [creating] economic opportunities for women in clean energy”. However, the domestic climate change response - the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change - lags behind, making no direct reference to gender issues, let alone girls and young women.
This inattention to empowering Canadian girls and young women goes hand in hand with inadequate resources to support youth climate action. Over the past few years, Canadian equity-seeking initiatives have faced financial cuts, impairing the potential of women’s organizations and gender experts to meaningfully engage in the climate policy debate. There is also a lack of paid opportunities for young people to further climate action. Many grassroots organizations are volunteer-led, which poses a financial barrier for the participation of low-income girls and young women in climate action who may not be able to engage in unpaid activities.
An additional barrier to meaningful decision-making participation of girls and young women is tokenism, the merely symbolic efforts to include a representative of an equity-seeking group to give the appearance of fair treatment. For example, in natural resource management activities, very few women exist in senior levels and even if they are included in management boards, women feel their voices are not as valued. Youth activists are calling out the tide of “youth-washing” wherein corporations, politicians, and institutions are superficially engaging youth, without serious actions being taken or weight given to their claims.
In a previous blog post, we discussed the importance of designing and implementing policy and decision-making processes to advance gender equality. A similar discussion is necessary to bridge the gap between climate action and decision-making participation of girls and young women. We offer a few suggestions to ensure the meaningful inclusion of their important perspectives and claims:
Raise awareness of youth activism and leverage role models to inspire further activism and inclusive policy-making
Documenting contributions of girls and young women to climate activism is important to understanding not just the scale and impact of their actions but also how they are shaping local activism, community resilience, and climate governance. Role models can inspire further activism, increasing the range of youth perspectives and backgrounds.
Create participatory and non-hierarchical channels of communication
Empowering girls to participate in climate action and having their voices and experiences accounted for in climate decision- and policy-making can facilitate the design of inclusive and innovative climate policies that are also more responsive to intergenerational demands and needs. Inclusive policy-making can resort to many forms of youth participation: consultation with equity-seeking youth organizations, establishment of ombudspeople for future generations in policy circles, and youth delegate programmes are just a few examples.
Increase financial support for youth climate action
Girls and young women have long been taking part in climate action initiatives, but they have not been compensated for their time and labour. Efforts to empower girls to participate in climate action and decision-making must involve financial compensation, especially to galvanize the inclusion of girls from low-income backgrounds who usually have their voices and experiences marginalized even in youth climate action.
Avoid tokenizing youth
The invitation of a small number of girls and young women to participate in formal climate discussion meetings cannot displace meaningful and broader consultation and inclusion of their perspectives in climate decision-making. It is necessary to ensure that youth solutions are considered and meaningfully incorporated, and to create a track record of impact to keep the institutions in power accountable.
Girls and young women are shaping and changing the nature and direction of climate activism. There is a lot to be done to ensure that their perspectives are meaningfully accounted for in decision and policy-making. We hope that in this International Day of the Girl, we move one step further to creating avenues for intergenerational perspectives in climate decision-making.