Every March, during Women’s History Month, I look back on some of the peace and environmental activists who guide my work.

Barbara Deming, the feminist writer who teaches us to listen, persevere, and keep justice at the forefront of all we do.

Wangari Maathai, the environmentalist and first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize; she planted trees to reforest her nation, and in so doing, lifted fellow women out of poverty, too.

Or Patsy T. Mink, from right here in Hawaii, who became the first woman of color and first Asian American elected to Congress; she stood up for civil rights and authored Title IX, protecting against gender discrimination in public schools.

Such women continue to inspire my work at the Institute for Climate and Peace every day. Yet today, we are in a very different world than those brilliant leaders and activists of the past.

Today, braided into the fabric of all of our lives is the largest threat to humanity’s fundamental goal of peace: climate change. Whether we recognize it or not, all of our communities are affected by this pressing global challenge.

TIME Magazine’s person of the year for 2019, Greta Thunberg, at a climate change rally at the Greek Amphitheater in Denver, Colorado, on Oct. 11. Flickr: Anthony Quintano

We know that climate change impacts different communities differently; for example, small island developing states in the Pacific Region are often the first to experience its effects, such as rising tides, natural disaster, and more. Not surprisingly, research tells us that these effects — which lead to issues like food insecurity and displacement — have the greatest impact on the poor.

And the fact that the majority of the world’s poor are women means that women are the ones most frequently impacted by climate change. In fact, some estimates suggest that eight in 10 people who have been displaced by climate change are women.

‘Peace’ Needs A Rebrand

In addition to facing high rates of poverty around the world, women are also frequently the providers of the home needs, such as growing the crops and collecting food and water. This too leaves them at greater risk as we adjust to a changing climate.

For example, many women in Senegal have the responsibility of collecting water; however, faced with a 35% decline in rainfall, this necessary task becomes harder and harder, and strains the women — who have to journey increasingly far for clean water for their families — even more.

The good news is that this situation, in which the greatest burden of instability of climate change falls on the shoulders of women, is a situation that can be reframed as one of tremendous opportunity and potential, for it is women who can bring an unprecedented level of peace-building to the global community.

As ICP’s co-founder Maya Soetoro frequently advocates, “peace” needs a rebrand. Too often, it is thought of as a symbol, without any clear pathways for achievement. That’s why ICP focuses on positive peace, a researched, quantifiable pathway for communities to build resilience in the age of climate change.

In its simplest form, the term negative peace is used to describe an absence of conflict, whereas positive peace is the presence of dispositions, skills, relationships, and structures that help societies create and nourish ongoing peace and resilience, even in the face of resource instability.

Addressing the underlying causes of violent conflict, and working to create a just, equitable, and cooperative structure, the need for positive peace-building cannot be stressed enough; in fact, the 2019 Institute for Economics and Peace Pacific Report showed us that lives lost in natural disaster were 13 times higher in communities with low positive peace than those with high positive peace.

But what does it mean to build positive peace? How can we do it?

For starters, we can involve women. This is not simply the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing. The research makes this exceedingly clear:

  • When women are involved in peace-building, the probability that violence will end increases by 24%.
  • Peace agreements that involve women are 35% more likely to last at least fifteen years.
  • Women’s involvement in peace-building negotiations heightens the likelihood of the agreement lasting by 20% in the first two years.

However, too often, women are kept out of the decision-making process. At the local level, they face barriers to education, employment, and property ownership. And at the governmental level, women account for only 24.9% of parliamentarians globally.

Let’s make it a goal to recognize what women can achieve in climate and peace work now.

Yet as we face climate change, it is also women who are uniquely poised to do the work, for we know that those who are most affected by a crisis are also those whose needs, perspectives, and solutions are most valuable. In fact, this is so apparent that the 2015 Paris Agreement includes a specific provision for the empowerment of women.

So if the goal of Women’s History Month is to celebrate the remarkable work that women have achieved, let’s also make it a goal to recognize what women can achieve in climate and peace work now, if we give them a seat at the table.

In your own community, or even in your own life, this might feel like an intangible ask. Yet since climate change and the need for positive peace are a part of all we do, pathways for entry are everywhere. Our work is to identify, highlight, and build upon them.

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About the Author

  • Zelda Keller
    Zelda Keller is the interim executive director at the Institute for Climate and Peace, which was founded by Maxine Burkett and Maya Soetoro-Ng in 2018. She is a peace and conflict transformation specialist. Keller received her B.A. in Peace Studies from the University of Hawaii, a certificate in Asia Pacific Leadership from the East-West Center, and she is an alumna of the national service program, AmeriCorps VISTA.