Article | 02 Mar, 2023

Protecting women’s and girl’s rights to a healthy environment

Buhle Francis, Rhodes University, South Africa; Dr. Georgina Yaa Oduro & Kenneth Amankwaah Boateng, University of Cape Coast, Ghana; Prof. Elisa Morgera & Dr. Senia Febrica, University of Strathclyde, UK

The One Ocean Hub has made a written submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment based on a call on “Women, Girls and the Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment.” The call for submissions will lead to a report to the Human Rights Council in March 2023. This blogpost highlights key messages from the submission.

Impacts of climate, pollution, and biodiversity crises on women and girls

The Hub’s research sheds light on the impacts on women and girls in relation to land tenure and access to productive assets and technology, access to water, ocean plastics and sea-level rise, generally underscoring the need for further attention to girls and women as ocean defenders (environmental human rights defenders).

  • Hub research along the South African coastline shows that the majority of women and girls are experiencing severe shortages of water within their communities (especially in the Eastern Cape, like Hamburg) and spend significant time trying to collect water, sometimes having to walk for more than five kilometres. The issue of water shortages in rural and coastal communities and its implications on women are also common in Ghana (Filho et al., 2022; Buor, 2004).

  • Hub research in Ghana revealed the impacts of the proliferation of marine plastics on women fish processors, as their smoking sheds are located on the banks of lagoons where most of plastic debris are deposited. A Hub survey showed that most women fish processors experience the negative impacts of plastic pollution on their health and occupation. In addition, mosquitoes and other parasite breed in plastic debris, making it challenging for them to work at night. 

Specific obligations of States and responsibilities of businesses to protect and respect women’s and girls’ rights to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment

As the Hub has underscored in its recent submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, the protection of women’s cultural rights and the use of arts can be transformative in protecting their human right to a healthy environment, as well as other human rights of small-scale fishers and ocean-dependent communities. The Hub further noted the need, under international law, to further clarify State obligations and business responsibility to respect girls’ and women’s human rights in relation to the protection of the marine environment, including at the ocean-climate nexus (Lennan and Morgera 2022), and to ensure their protection as ocean defenders, as part of their human right to a healthy environment, notably in the context of:

Socioeconomic, cultural, legal, and/or institutional transformations needed to achieve gender parity

Recognition of women’s unique knowledge and their economic contributions, including through art forms, can be transformational in genuinely supporting women’s leadership in sustainable fisheries management, as women’s fisheries activities immensely contribute to both occupational and household security. Despite women contribution to sustainable fisheries being often overlooked, some women occupational groups are becoming hierarchically-positioned such as the kokohemaas (queen of the women fish processors) and  canoe owners (i.e., fish mammies in Ghana), which may support better representation in the traditional co-management structure and influence decisions on sustaining fishery resources.

The potential benefits of protecting women’s and girl’s rights to a healthy environment

The One Ocean Hub’s submission underscored the benefit of protecting women’s and girls’ human rights as environment and ocean human rights defenders (see also here), to the benefit of everyone’s right to a healthy environment

  • Along the coastline of South Africa, women are among the groups that are fighting and resisting the projects of seismic surveys for offshore oil and gas exploration which threatens their livelihoods and the marine life and a safe climate. Women ocean defenders have been successful in recent legal challenges to these harmful exploration practices, with the support of an innovative network of researchers and legal NGOs, the Coastal Justice Network (Sunde 2022; Pereira Kaplan 2022).
  • In Ghana, responses to a survey carried out by Hub researchers indicate that women fish mammies have warned fishermen against chemical fishing and testing before paying for fish at the landing beach, to check if the fish contains chemicals. 

Ongoing Hub research

Hub research in South Africa continues to explore women’s cultural and socio-economic connections to the ocean, as well as their contributions to decision-making processes. Research in Ghana is exploring the potential challenges and opportunities to support women fishers’ leadership in the co-management of small-scale fishers. In addition, the Hub is co-developing with the UN Environment Programme: an e-learning course on gender and multilateral environmental agreements; and an information sheet on women’ rights and ocean plastics.