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"Women's Leadership is needed in this century more than ever"

VOW TALKS with Mary Robinson - President of Ireland 1990 - 1997 and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Outspoken and often defiant, Mary Robinson has never been afraid to ruffle feathers.  At home, in Ireland, she was known as a champion of women’s rights, campaigning for the liberalisation of divorce and abortion laws in a strongly Catholic country.  Her tenure as UN human rights commissioner, from 1997 to 2002, was at times controversial. She angered governments around the world – China, Russia and America included – with her unflinching criticism of their human rights records.  But she is also credited with widening the brief of the commission to include ‘softer’ issues like food security, health care and the right to safe drinking water.  After resigning from the UN, partly as a result of pressure from the Bush administration, Robinson continued her human rights work with Realizing Rights, the advocacy organisation she founded.  Now she has turned her attention to climate change and, through the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, is emphasising the need for a rights-based approach to the problem – one which seeks redress for those who, having contributed least to the pollution of the planet, are bearing the brunt of its impacts; and one which recognises that women will suffer more than men.  She speaks here shortly after visiting communities in Bangladesh that are already experiencing the devastating effects of global warming, and explained why she believes that women need to be involved at all levels in the climate change negotiation process.

Your Foundation is working to secure justice for victims of climate change. Please could you explain what is meant by a ‘climate justice’ approach to global warming?

Mary Robinson: Climate justice offers a strong effective human centred approach for action on climate change because it acknowledges that some of the countries and populations that are suffering the most are the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.  I’ve just returned from Bangladesh and I travelled to Koyra in the Delta region and saw the devastation caused by cyclone Aila in 2009 – houses were destroyed and the embankments have not been properly mended so that the saltwater has come onto the land. The rice that used to grow there won’t grow anymore and there is no more freshwater fishing.  Already, these are the kind of dramatic impacts of climate change on people who had have made no contribution to the problem but who are suffering greatly, and therefore we need a strong justice approach that builds on what is already in the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] framework – common but differentiated responsibilities.

Given that you are promoting a justice approach to climate change why do we need to have a gender specific response?

The impact of climate change has different effects on women and men, and indeed children. The impacts are greater on women because they aggravate situations of poverty – [it is] women who have to go further for water, who have to cope with the house being flooded or intense drought so that there is no food security.  I saw this visibly in Bangladesh. For the women the impacts were very severe because their homes had been destroyed, the income that they had from growing vegetables and other crops was destroyed, so they were learning a different method of fishing. But as well as coping with learning new farming and fishing methods, the women had to cope with the devastating impact on the household and community. This was very evident. And so we believe that a strong gender perspective recognises the reality, that the impacts are worse for women, in many, many cases. And that women leaders will tend to have a more practical approach to trying to address the way in which we can support communities affected by climate change, with more emphasis on support for adaptation.

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