Rural Women’s Assembly - ‘Women, Guardians of Seed, Life and the Earth’
Rural Women’s Assembly - ‘Women, Guardians of Seed, Life and the Earth’
The COP 17 delay in finding a solution to save the planet will have the most extreme impacts on African rural women because of the ecologically-vulnerable geography in which they find themselves. They also experience specific vulnerabilities by virtue of their structural powerlessness within their families, communities, countries and the world as a whole, weakening their ability to adapt to climate change when it happens. They constitute numbers of the 300 000 people that die every year as a result of climate change, and make up a majority of those whom the UN considers at extreme risk of being a climate change victim. The Rural Women’s Assembly national and regional organising for COP 17 and its impacts is therefore of great significance to a wider civil society understanding of impact.
Background to the RWA
The first regional Rural Women’s Assembly was held in the last quarter of 2009 in Limpopo, South Africa, creating a significant political space for more than 300 rural women from farmer unions, peasant movements, smallholder farmer and landless people organisations in the SADC region to share perspectives and knowledge, find convergence, and create alliance. The second regional assembly coincided with the COP 17 in Durban from 1-5 December 2011 and brought together over 700 rural women from 9 countries in the region. The SADC Rural Women’s Assembly (at a much smaller scale) met in the year intervening between the two assemblies to consider the AU Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy as well as the threats of food (in) security in the region.
In South Africa, organising towards COP 17 prompted the emergence of a national ‘chapter’ of the Rural Women’s Assembly, which held a coming together in Pretoria on the 13 and 14th October 2011, culminating in a march on the Union Buildings on International World Rural Women’s Day (15 October 2011).
Why are the perspectives of rural women in Southern Africa so critical?
Feminists working with rural South African women to tackle rural poverty and inequality have long theorised that rural women carry the triple burden of race, class and geographical marginalisation, and the experience of other rural women in Southern Africa is not dissimilar. Climate change, projected to have the most extreme impacts in the Africa region because of its vulnerable ecology, and high poverty levels negatively impacting preparedness, represents the fourth burden for poor rural women. They carry the greatest burden of climate change impacts and of the false solutions being imposed in the place of real structural solutions. In summary, the RWA believes that considering climate change from the vantage point of poor rural women is important for the following reasons:
Firstly, rural populations comprise the majority of the world’s population of poor people, with IFAD’s 2011 Rural Poverty Report concluding that 3.1 billion people or 55% of the total global population live in rural areas, and of these 1.5 billion live on less than US$1.25 per day. At least 79% of the world‘s very poor people live in rural geographies, and South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa account for the bulk of the rural poor.
Secondly, women constitute the majority of the rural poor. The IFAD 2003 roundtable discussion paper ‘Women as Agents of Change’ tells us that “women own less than 2% of all land, and receive only 5% of extension services worldwide. It is estimated that women in Africa receive less than 10% of all credit going to small farmers and a mere 1% of the total credit going to the agricultural sector.” In addition, the IFAD 2011 report states that, at the global level, men’s landholdings are almost three times the size of women’s, and that in most developing countries, rural women’s triple responsibilities for work on the farm, household reproduction, and income earning means they may work up to 16 hours a day, much longer than their male counterparts, with inadequate services, infrastructure and technologies to ease their work burden. 
Thirdly, Africa, a continent of 800 million people, is projected to experience the worst impacts of climate change. Africa has already experienced a temperature increase of 0.7C during the 20th century, and according to UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change director R.K. Pachauri, Africa’s ‘crop net revenues could fall by as much as 90 percent by 2100.’ Projected climate impacts in this region include rapid desertification, water scarcity, drought and floods, heightened incidence of malaria, rising starvation etc. Rural women will be deeply impacted as the primary producers of food throughout the continent, and as the main reproducers of family (provisioning of safe water supplies, care for the sick etc.) and given a weak structural location in society will be less able to defend their natural resources from the incursions of avaricious companies, government officials and male elites as the effects of climate change bear down and the land, water sources and forests upon which women depend are raided for profit.
Finally, women will carry the weight not just of climate change but of the ‘green solutions’ (GMOs, biofuels, carbon trading) that developed countries, multinational institutions and corporates are posing to the triple crisis of climate, finance and fuel. In all cases, these ‘solutions’ push the burden of responsibility for climate change mitigation onto the poorest and most marginal global citizens that have made little contribution to the climate crisis - rural peasant farmers, most of whom are women.
Organising for COP 17 – the political agenda and key strategies
The political agenda (positions and strategy) of the Assembly was constructed over time and in fact evolved on a consistent basis as workshops and awareness raising work led to deepening understanding, as the context threw up new challenges and opportunities, and as government’s policy making processes took concrete forms. In July, the rural women’s caucus (at this time driving the Assembly process) made a first statement of the objectives that would guide organising work with rural women around COP 17 as follows: (a) organising and strengthening a movement of rural women nationally and regionally, and (b) gathering ‘asks’ and bringing ‘South African and African rural women’s voices and their experience of climate change to COP 17 (and other forums or processes they sought to influence). The final memorandum of the Southern African rural women’s assembly outlines the clearest expression of the Assembly’s position on climate change and the demands of rural women for action by governments and the UN (see Appendix A).
The objectives of the RWA were advanced through a combination of strategies:
(a) Awareness raising workshops and activities – four provincial cluster workshops took place in May and August 2011 with the aim of building awareness and analysis about climate change, its impacts on rural women producers particularly, and to enable the exchange of responses by women to climate change. The ‘targets’ for these workshops were CBOs, representatives of popular organisations and movements, and NGOs supporting the struggles of rural and landless people for land and food sovereignty. A clear focus of these workshops was to generate demands to inform local level organising and campaigning, and input to policy and government COP 17 negotiating positions.
(b) Assemblies (National and Southern African) - The national assembly from 13-15 October 2011 aimed to create a political platform for rural women to exchange, deepen solidarity and press government on rural women’s demands on climate change, land, food, rural governance etc. On 15th October the participants followed the path of their sisters in 1956 marching to the Union Building to deliver a memorandum to government outlining their demands of government and its positioning towards COP 17. The RWA targeted the Presidency and five key government departments.  A very junior government representative, from a marginal unit (the gender unit), in one of the weakest ministries of government (the DRDLF) was mandated by the presidency to accept the memorandum and address the women on behalf of government. Rural women are largely disorganised, poorly represented (if at all) in major institutions of influence (Business, Labour, Church, indeed even Government) and lacking in resources, altogether read a grouping with little influence, power to disrupt or embarrass and therefore quite unworthy of a fair audience.
The second regional assembly of well over 700 women in Durban had an ambitious agenda to deepen understanding about the systemic nature of the climate and food crisis, exchange experience of climate change and its impacts, share strategies for responding to climate change, strengthen local and international movements, and build a shared political platform on climate change regionally. The Assembly comprised the following types of activities/actions: exchanges (of seeds, responses to climate change etc.) speak outs, exploratory sessions using creative techniques, actions (marches, demonstrations etc.), teach-ins, and political discussions to forge political decisions.
(c)Media and publicity work – this was specifically tied to the two Assemblies and aimed to attract the attention of the media, and through this, the attention and sympathy of the wider public (in the case of the Regional Assembly – a global public) to the particular impacts of climate change on rural women, and their demands of governments and the UN.
(d) Policy research, analysis and ‘engagement’ of government and its policy processes - The COP 17 organising of rural women galvanised grassroots linked policy analysis and influencing work, mainly oriented to the national climate change policy process. The Green Paper on Climate Change, released in November 2010, and the public hearings that took place in the first quarter of 2011, preceded the formation of the National RWA. A discussion and analysis of the RWA’s effort to influence the Climate Change Policy from May 2011 is outlined in section _ of this paper. The RWA and its constituting organisations participated in a very long list of European Commission, DIRCO and DEA conferences, stakeholder meetings and workshops, and a few provincial meetings in the period May to December 2011. In addition, representatives of some organisations making up or working with the RWA – but no grassroots women – took up an opportunity to meet with Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane on the 7th December 2011 for a South African ‘civil society consultation’ held inside of the International Convention Centre (ICC), meaning that only those accredited (mainly the big INGOs, policy think tanks, or blue chip national NGOs) could participate. The complaints of organisations like the RWA against such an exclusionary process may have helped inform government’s decision to build a civil society-government platform at the City Hall on the morning of 8th December. The RWA and the faith community were invited to speak on a platform, alongside the President, the Premier of KwaZulu-Natal and the Minister of Economic Development. This ‘civil society’ consultation was organised as a deal had already been struck in backrooms, and was obviously meant to secure some level of CSO endorsement of this deal and convey to global leaders the open democratic consultative orientation of the SA government. The meeting was disrupted by physical attacks (sponsored by the same municipal employed ‘green goons’ that had assaulted activists on the GDA march) against climate justice activists expressing their perspective on the South African government’s failure to secure a deal that would safeguard the planet, and prevent the death of hundreds of millions of African compatriots.
(e) Direct action – Over the course of the two assemblies, and discounting any local actions of which we might not be aware, the RWA participated in three marches (one impromptu, and two planned), and one demonstration. The first march upon the union buildings was of the National Assembly and took place on 15 October. The second march on 2nd December was an entirely spontaneous one – see the ‘Anarchic People’s March’ on page _. The RWA marched as a block on the Global Day of Action (GDA) – for more on the GDA see section_. The RWA, supported by Friends of the Earth International and Action Aid International, also held a solidarity action (on the 4th December), meeting with the lead negotiator for the Africa Block to show allegiance and solidarity to the positions this block was pushing in the negotiations.
(f) Networking and solidarity – The RWA made every effort to network with and act in solidarity with a range of progressive formations engaged in actions and campaigns surrounding the COP. This included the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), One Million Climate Jobs Campaign, the Democratic Left Front (DLF), the South African Waste Pickers Association and their ally Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), and La Via Campesina. This solidarity took numerous forms – participating in joint actions (marches, pickets and demonstrations); creating linkages in political discussion across spaces (by having a representative/s address the RWA or sending a representative or a nominated group to address another forum); endorsing petitions and memorandums etc.
The ‘impact’ and key lessons from the RWA
The RWA, over the period May to mid-December 2011, undertook an impressive number of workshops, awareness raising activities, marches, demonstrations, and two assemblies; and wrote no less than five different memorandums, policy submissions and a dozen letters to different government departments, but what did this all add up to in terms of ‘impact’?
The RWA had success in its building of a national and then later a regional platform of rural women, and informing the public (nationally and internationally), and some politicians and elected officials of governments at the COP 17 about the experiences and demands of rural women for national and international action on climate change. Despite this profile, the Durban outcome does not, in any way, respond to the needs and interests of rural women and sentences them instead to a future of less water, greater hunger, the threat of land loss, lowered production levels and a high likelihood of premature death.
One of the key questions that emerges from the RWA experience, as it does from many other campaigns and organising efforts surrounding the COP 17, is how to link the inside and outside if at all. This was barely discussed in the RWA in the lead up to COP, and only touched on in the early 2012 RWA review of COP 17. Some of the organisations constituting and working with the RWA had seats inside the negotiations, but there was no agreed ‘inside-outside’ strategy and no space on the programme of the RWA until one of the last days to receive information on and analyse the trajectory of the negotiations, the different blocks of actors, the SA government’s role as convenor etc. This flow of information from the inside to the outside is critical to deepen analysis about the power interests that come around the multilateral process, to refine strategy, and to communicate positions back to supportive negotiation blocks.
The RWA is politically diverse and some of the key fissures come around (a) the multilateral process and (b) state-civil society relations, no different from the C17 and other alliances. Some of the organisations had an inside presence (as mentioned above) and were typically more confident and invested in the possibility of an inside resolution that would be ‘fair’ to global citizens. Other organisations and individuals working within the RWA held a much more critical perspective on multi-lateral processes, based on the understanding that it is not the interests of poor global citizens represented there but rather the interests of rich global citizens, and the MNCs in particular, that drive decision-making. There are also different positions in respect of state-civil society relations mapping out to different orientations to government and government-led policy and legislative processes. Some organisations still have a vested interest in participating in, trying to influence and, in the end, giving credibility to deeply flawed government policy and law making processes that are compromised by the nexus of state-party-business interests. Some organisations and individuals hold a contrary perspective and are critical about drawing community groups into government-led processes that only lend credence to predetermined positions that have been constructed in back rooms and do not represent the interests of poor citizens. These are the elephants in the room that do need to be surfaced and addressed by the RWA as it moves forward.
While the RWA organisers may not really have imagined that they would ‘influence’ the COP 17 negotiations there was a small hope that they would be able to influence the national Climate Change Response Policy from the perspective of rural women. According to members of the policy team of the RWA, influencing work did result in some small text changes in the final policy outcome (the White Paper) – however there is only one reference to rural women, who clustered together with children and the aged are identified as a ‘special needs group’. The policy addresses agriculture from a mitigation and adaptation angle, highlights the importance of a movement to climate resilient sustainable agriculture, and does address the needs of subsistence farmers for attention within an integrated rural development framework, but could have gone much further in privileging subsistence and small scale farmers, proposing the reorientation of existing policies and programmes across government to support their needs, and addressing this sector as a budget priority for adaptation support. The failure to set an adequate emissions reduction target required to keep temperature increases below the scientifically accepted 1.5 degree standard will have dramatic consequences for rural women, the major subsistence and small scale producers, and their offspring in just a decade or two. In summary, the RWA may have achieved some small success in influencing the final outcome of the Climate Change Response policy.
The greatest achievement of the RWA was that it did help to strengthen a movement of rural women nationally and regionally. Over a thousand rural women and representatives from organisations working alongside rural women obtained more information about climate change; understood more about the institutional processes – policy making and negotiations – that shape their lives in such distant but deeply profound ways; had opportunity to exchange concrete experiences of climate change and their responses; and shared concrete examples of alternatives (indigenous seeds, technologies, agro-ecology farming methods and techniques, traditional forms of local trading etc.) to ‘false solutions (GMOs, agrofuels, carbon trading etc.); and had chance to take action (to emerge from invisibility to visibility, to talk out their demands, to test against power etc.). Related to this, the work towards COP 17 helped to ‘bring’ the climate change question to rural women and the organisations that support them - to help them understand the changing soil conditions, weather and rainfall patterns they mention, to assist them think through and ‘trade’ in a truly open market their responses and the alternatives they construct on a daily basis, and to enable them to articulate their demands and frame their ideas for follow on actions. The challenge going forward is to ensure that the insights, lessons and work started through the RWA is sustained and developed going forward.
The Climate Change Policy Process – a story of compromise and exclusion
The RWA’s experience of the Climate Change policy process is very illustrative of the many challenges poor citizens and the organisations that work in solidarity with them experience in respect of policy-making. Firstly, while the Green Paper was released in late November 2011 and the time frame for comments concluded on the 15th February 2011, the traditional long holiday period over December effectively reduced the real consultation time to 6 weeks. Informants to this short paper indicated that this was way too contracted a period to do any meaningful consultations with rural and affected communities in advance of the deadline.
Secondly, most of the organisations constituting the RWA complained that they only heard about the provincial consultation ‘public’ workshops (contracted out to a company called Linkd, which is closely associated with leadership of the DEA) conducted over January and February 2011 after the fact. It is therefore unlikely that rural communities and organisations, poorly networked and informed, would have participated in these workshops. The same experience applies to the thematic consultative workshops held at more or less the same time.
Thirdly, the initial timeline for the conclusion of the White Paper had been June 2011, but by August there was still no sign of the Paper and no clear indication from government as to when it would be released. Towards the end of August, the two big INGOs (Oxfam and ActionAid), closely associated with the RWA, met with the DEA Chief Director of Air Quality Management and Climate Change, Mr Peter Lukey, which meeting was followed by a ‘carefully handpicked’ civil society consultation on the White Paper arranged by the WWF (another INGO) shortly after that. Just a few days after that a member organisation of the RWA – also an NGO with close international links, Gender cc – was able to appeal to a collegial connection with Peter Lukey to open up space for the rural women’s caucus to give input to the White Paper. At this time the White Paper had not yet been officially released. Carrying the mandate of the RWA, representatives to this latter mentioned meeting raised deep concerns about the content of the White Paper – specifically the absence of focus to women, the gendered impacts of climate change and rural women’s needs in terms of adaptation support – and complained about the delays in release and the real failure to solicit input from poor rural women to the policy making process.
In these various August encounters with Mr Lukey, he indicated that in the period February to August 2011, the DEA had been deeply immersed in intra-government negotiations in respect of the White Paper and in July 2011 had ‘talked with some stakeholders in business and civil society’. He indicated that the DEA would not be opening the White Paper up to a further round of consultation for fear it would be ‘watered down’ by business and some government departments. Cabinet was also pressing hard for the release of the White Paper in advance of the COP 17. Mr Lukey opened a door for the RWA to give detailed input to the July draft of the White Paper from a rural women’s perspective – this input, undertaken with track changes, drew upon the outcomes of the awareness raising workshops and emerging policy positions of the RWA – and was submitted to the DEA in early September 2011. The White Paper, released nearly six weeks later, retained some of the policy change suggestions made by the RWA.
Fourth, the White Paper (as a policy proposal) was eventually gazetted in the third week of October (nearly 4 months past the deadline announced in November 2010) with parliamentary hearings scheduled to take place on the 31st October. This was an extremely tight and unrealistic process, allowing only fourteen days for consultations of members. Given the RWA’s unhappiness with the White Paper and its deep critique of the failures of the public consultation, the RWA elected not to make a formal submission (which some RWA members felt would lend credibility to the process), but instead wrote a letter of complaint to the Minister of Environmental Affairs, and the Chair of the Portfolio Committee. This letter indicated that the RWA would be exploring options for legal action to hold government accountable to legal requirements for citizen participation in public policy-making.
While it would be easy to default to a formulaic (but important) liberal analysis about the constitution and its “requirement that government engage with citizens when making the decisions that affect their lives” (see IDASA and Buccus), we must ask a deeper question about why this problem of exclusion of poor citizens from participation in decisions that deeply concerns every aspect of their lives now and into the future (as exactly this policy process does) repeats itself over and over again. Why are constitutional prescriptions for public participation, transparency and accountability not followed; and why do policies and laws not substantively represent the interests of the majority of citizens? This is about power – whose counts and who does not. It is the voices of business first, other actors second (for example, the politically influential INGOs) that really shape the policy process. And in the case of the RWA’s ‘crack in the door’ informal hearing on the White Paper, this was created through the intervention of some in the ‘inner circle’ that Buccus talks about. It is also likely that DEA officials were of the view that rural women (traditionally regarded as ‘gentle and cooperative’) would not overly rock the policy boat and could therefore be accommodated. DEA officials will cry that they are trying to balance multiple interests in the policy process and that it is not possible to satisfy the interests of all ‘actors’, but this is at the heart of the neo-liberal problematic. The policy and legislative process is cast as a neutral multi-stakeholder process, when this is indeed not so – while the White Paper is a great improvement on the Green Paper, its failure to align to a scientifically accepted 1.5 degree global warming target, its global emissions peak post 2020, and its privileging of market based mitigation solutions do not reflect the interests of the majority of citizens nor the radical changes needed to reduce our high carbon emissions that will have dramatic implications for our brothers and sisters on the rest of the continent. Corporate interests and their backers in government have carried the day.
 The author was employed by ActionAid South Africa during the RWA’s organising for COP 17 and this paper, with a few inputs gratefully received from some colleagues in the RWA, represents her perspective and not that of the RWA as a whole.
 Gender disaggregated data is impossible to locate and when found extremely dated.
 UNFCCC 2006 research
 The Department for International Relations and Cooperation, the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, the Department of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries, the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.
 The RWA held two different internal self-reflections over the period January to March 2012 – the one telephonic and the second face to face – upon which this section draws.