Grassroots Women at COP17
an article by Sally Wilkinson, GenderCC

If you had passed by a particular conference venue in the north-western suburbs of Durban a couple of weeks ago, you may have been struck by the sound of strong voices – women's voices – singing in unison and harmony. But this wasn't choir practice. This was the Grassroots Women's Conference on Climate Change, taking place on 24th and 25th November in Durban.

The women’s singing was a rich and beautiful accompaniment to the dialogue and networking that was generated over the two days – and for those of us at the conference who weren't South Africans, it was a resounding introduction to the cultural heart of the country.

The conference was jointly organised by GenderCC, Women for Climate Justice and the Land Access Movement of South Africa (LAMOSA) and brought together women from all over South Africa, as well as countries including Nigeria, Cameroon, Mozambique, Kenya, Uruguay and Pakistan. It was a chance for women to share their challenges and experiences and voice their concerns on issues relating to climate change and capacity building.

The women identified key areas for action, including education and awareness-raising, access to land and resources and transparency in decision-making. At the conclusion of the conference, participants endorsed a statement to be presented at COP 17 encapsulating their climate change demands.

Many of the South African women stayed on for the first week of COP 17 as part of GenderCC's delegation. These women immersed themselves in the world of the international climate change negotiations – experiencing UNFCCC processes first-hand and sharing their knowledge with a wider audience, including as part of the women and gender caucus.

Emily Tjale gave an intervention in the AWG-KP on behalf of GenderCC, urging governments to take the concerns of grassroots communities into account and to secure an ambitious global agreement. Another of the delegation, Elizabeth Letlhaku, was a presenter at GenderCC's side event, where she talked about the Siphephile Waste Recycling Co-operative, which undertakes projects on recycling, waste management and urban agriculture. Elizabeth gave us an insight into the challenges faced by her co-op – in particular, the urgent need for financial assistance to help the co-op establish itself and keep projects afloat.

Many of the women also took part in events as part of the Rural Women’s Assembly, which overlapped with the first week of COP 17. Their involvement proved to be both capacity building in action and a strong example of how grassroots communities can benefit from participating at an international level.

Women from all over the world are already doing incredible things in their daily lives, and it is critical that their work is recognised and valued. We must support grassroots women and remove financial, cultural and political barriers to enable women to contribute as effectively as possible for the benefit of the climate and their communities.

In listening to the women’s stories throughout COP 17 and hearing the joy and energy in their song, there was no doubt about the transformative potential of these women to play a key role in climate change solutions – both within their communities and on the international stage.