Critical Intersections: The Participation of Women and Youth in Climate Action
In the midst of the Women and Youth Symposium hosted by the Southern African Resource Watch and the Climate Ambition to Accountability Project Youth Climate Champions programme, Bongekile Zwane took some time to share her unique story as an advocate of women’s rights and a climate activist. This profile is written by Zikhona Mtwa, from the Climate Action Network South Africa.
Bongekile Zwane is an activist fighting for the rights of her mining-affected community in Carolina, Mpumalanga. She is listed as part of the 2023 Sunday World Unsung Heroes under the Heroes of Climate and Sustainability category. Bongekile addresses environmental concerns caused by mining operations and empowers women in decision-making. Her work focuses on a feminist approach to sustainable development, highlighting challenges such as pollution, extreme weather, and food security. She aims to prioritize women in the energy transition and climate policy, bringing about positive change in her community. In 2022, she was part of the Youth Climate Champion (YCC) Bootcamp cohort. As part of her efforts, Bongekile advocates for a feminist approach to sustainable women’s development in communities. She was a principal researcher for the Southern Africa Resource Watch community study, which resulted in the “Women on Coal Report: A Feminist Participatory Action Research on Coal and Climate Change by Women in Carolina”. The report sheds light on the challenges faced by women in the community, including floods, soil erosion, shifting rainfall patterns, and extreme weather events, all of which affect food security.
Tell us about yourself, and what has led you to climate action.
My name is Bongekile Zwane, and I come from Carolina, Mpumalanga. I am part of an organization called Womxndla Community Development NPC which is a feminist movement and community-based organization that works with women and queer bodies with a focus on gender-based violence and understanding how it affects them. What led me to climate action is that coming from a community that is affected by mining, I have seen how it affects women and that was how I got involved with Womxndla Community Development. The link between gender-based violence and climate action is something we do not talk about when we talk about climate change. We only talk about environmental effects, but we do not talk about how it affects women and their lived experiences, we often exclude them from the picture. Additionally, Carolina is slowly becoming a ghost town because there is no other activity that is happening besides mining, and that affects us. We are not benefiting from the mines and based on the years that the mines have been operating, Carolina should be bigger than it is now, we should be having our colleges.
Can you tell us about the specific environmental issues and challenges faced by your mining-affected community in Carolina, Mpumalanga?
The community is severely impacted by water and air pollution because of the mining operations from the twelve operating mines. Mining companies use their dams, and sometimes they overflow. The chemicals they use then move to the streams that we use as a community. Secondly, the blasting that comes from the mining operation disturbs our boreholes which therefore affects the pipes that bring us water. Our water then becomes heavily contaminated to such an extent that I had eczema at some point. There are also mining companies that are located next to farms and schools. I remember at one point, we visited a primary school as Womxndla, and the next thing we heard was a big blast, and there was dust everywhere. The children were so terrified, one ran to us and said “Sizofa la” which can be translated to “We are going to die here”.
Can you share some insights or key findings from the “Women on Coal Report: A Feminist Participatory Action Research on Coal, Climate Change by Women in Carolina” that you were involved in?
We did the research in three development communities around Carolina, Kroomkrans, Onbekend and Silobela. It had the involvement of old women, middle-aged and youth as core researchers and participants in the project. By using a Feminist Participatory Action Research (FPAR) methodology we used different tools in finding out the impacts of coal mining and climate change on women in Carolina. These included the hopes and fears tool, the Master’s House of Oppression tool, the hazards and assets tool which addresses climate change and how the different hazards come about and destroy our assets, as well as the rights and responsibilities tool where we talk about our rights and responsibilities as women. One of the key findings was that several climate shocks and stresses are affecting women in Carolina due to climate change such as flooding, soil erosion, and shifting rainfall patterns. Additionally, due to coal operations, the community suffers from severe pollution of water and air.
You are involved with both Womxndla and the Youth Climate Champions programme, are there any connections you have drawn between the two and how can they be further strengthened?
Womxndla is more women involved, and the YCC bootcamp is more youth involved, and I fit both categories. The engagements from both platforms have been very positive as they come from the same point of being affected by climate change, and we have one common goal of participating in addressing climate change and ensuring a sustainable future for all. These can be further strengthened through continuing with such conversations, having women and youth speak about climate change and how it affects them, we can find possible solutions for the future.
How do you envision putting women at the centre of the just energy transition and climate policy in your community? What specific measures or strategies are you advocating for at different levels, government, civil society, communities and individuals?
Putting women at the centre of the just energy transition in Carolina urges all relevant parties and stakeholders to act to bring about transformative change that is inclusive, and how a just transition should look in their context. From the manifesto, our call to action is for government to recognize women, and to see women as people who can participate in decision-making processes. Consultations are very important for women in the community, the government should do consultations, and in these consultations, the government must be clear and transparent on what they can and cannot do. We also want to be allowed to make the government accountable. For communities to engage from a stronger and more informed position, civil society organizations must work together and network more effectively to create capacity, support the implementation of the activities outlined in the Manifesto, raise awareness, and educate communities. At the community and individual level, we call on the community of Carolina to be one, and voice for a just transition that prioritizes women, youth, and vulnerable groups in society.
Why is a feminist approach important to addressing the challenges women in Carolina have identified?
A feminist approach is important to address such challenges as women become empowered to document their experiences and concerns about how climate change affects them and shape recommendations for solutions to encourage change. Womxndla being a feminist organization, such an approach is also important for women to be empowered to contribute to discussions about climate change and a just transition.
Tell us about your future plans.
As Womxndla, ours mostly is to raise awareness of what is happening in our communities. On an individual level, I love media and entertainment. I hope that at some point I get into the entertainment space such as doing radio, doing documentaries, and doing writing that will not only accommodate us as women but also accommodate young kids to be able to read about climate change in a very fun way as I am a creative person. I want to create archives where we have stories of our own.
Bongekile’s interview is a follow up after her participation as a panelist in the Women and Youth Symposium Webinar titled “From Tokenism to Action: Youth and Women Perspectives on Climate Change – A Dialogue with Policy Makers”. The Symposium was a hybrid event held on the 12th of July 2023. The purpose of the webinar was to present and discuss the Women’s Manifesto on climate change and the Youth Climate Champions Position Paper as a way of directing conversations towards action. The discussions during the webinar highlighted the importance of inclusive policies that consider the needs and perspectives of all stakeholders, particularly women and youth speaking to the concerns raised by women and youth. As a panelist, Bongekile shared insights about the women’s manifesto on just energy transition which outline the challenges women face in Carolina, and proposes a framework for transformative change, ensuring an inclusive and equitable energy transition.
Zikhona Mtwa is a Climate Action and Coordination Intern at the South African Climate Action Network (SACAN). This blog is written for the Climate Ambition to Accountability Project — a joint project of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Climate Action Network South Africa (SACAN) and the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ). The project’s objective is to realize the effective participation of South African organizations in climate change governance to ensure enhanced climate policy ambition, implementation, and accountability. The project is co-funded by The European Union and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. This blog is the sole responsibility of the project team and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.