What do climate change, extremism and the shift in global power structures mean for the world's poorest women? | ActionAid UK

I've just returned from an ActionAid Country Directors’ Forum, which among other things looked at what is going on in the world right now and identified the key challenges that we all face over the next 10 years.

Women rally for their rights in Bihar, India
Women rally for their rights in Bihar, India

Big topics were on the agenda as ActionAid country directors from Africa, Asia and the Americas met to discuss some of the key issues and trends they have to deal with every day in their work on behalf of the world’s poorest people.

Discussions included climate change, religious fundamentalism and extremism, youth and what changing demographics mean in a country context, and the shift in global power structures and balances.

I’m talking here about the rise of the BRICS nations meeting this week in Brazil – those five major emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa that have large fast-growing economies and significant influence on regional and global affairs.

We also discussed the changing role of the private sector and the changing face of charities and what we are there to do.

If we don’t deal with climate change than no other issue matters

Many of these issues are identified in our current strategy but I was pleased that climate change came out much more strongly than I have previously seen in ActionAid global discussions.

There was one particularly telling quote from Farah Kabir who runs ActionAid’s programmes in Bangladesh. She said: “If we don’t deal with climate change then no other issue matters.”

Farah should know. She’s been instrumental in establishing a model ‘climate proof’ village. This is a civil engineering project that literally raised a village metres off the ground so that its families are safe when floods occur.

Her experiences reflect what I’ve seen when visiting other countries were we work. Environmental realities are undoubtedly getting worse. Poor people are already feeling the impact of climate change and of increasing natural disasters.

Some quick statistics on the impact of the increasing frequency of natural disasters: in the last 20 years, 1.3 million people have been killed, 4.4 billion affected with US$2 trillion in damages.

The rise of religious fundamentalism was also much more strongly expressed and again this is driven by the reality faced on the ground in countries like Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The impact of global economic and political trends on women’s rights

ActionAid volunteer facilitator Hawa Jalloh conducts an Ebola awareness session.

Underpinning all of the discussions was the reflection that these emerging trends negatively impact women’s rights  – particularly sexual and reproductive rights – and even that previous gains are in real danger of being reversed.

Conflict too, in many of the countries in which we work, is increasing women’s vulnerability with violence against women being deliberately used as a weapon of subjugation for entire communities. We only have to look at what is happening in DR Congo to understand how real this threat is.

So it was clear to me by the end of the meeting that gender equality has to be top of ActionAid’s list of priorities; that there has to be an even stronger emphasis on empowering women in the areas in which we work and on highlighting gender in the national and international campaigns that we run.

And while I’m writing about women’s rights, I would like to pay tribute to our brave female volunteers in Sierra Leone.

As you read this they will be going door-to-door telling friends and neighbours how to protect themselves from Ebola and about the importance of seeking treatment in what is now the world’s worst outbreak.