Waterlines: Confluence and Hope through Environmental Communication. The 15th biennial Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE). June 17-21, 2019, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Women, Climate, and Sea Level Rise: An Ecofeminist Approach to Move Above the Surface of Soft Law Stagnation

Emma Welden's picture
Welden, Emma Annabelle
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Scholarly papers

As an increasing amount of discourse emerges surrounding sea level rise from anthropogenic climate change and its impending disproportionate effects on women globally, it becomes increasingly clear we must enact legislation to mitigate this. However, which laws are the most effective in actualising change for women and the environment? Current international legislation concerning women and the environment remains locked in, what I term, “soft law stagnation.” Using ecofeminist methods of rhetorical criticism, I analyse two water-as-resource disputes, in Bangladesh and Ghana, and three of these soft laws: Agenda 21, The Beijing Declaration Platform for Action, and the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development. However, I find while the soft laws work to raise awareness of the impending weight women around the world will have to bear as climate change continues and sea levels rise [continuously until at least 2100 (IPCC.ch, 2018)], soft law in its essence is limited and unenforceable. 

Ecofeminism, a perspective and method illuminating an interconnectedness of the oppression of women and the environment (Corbett, 2006), highlights values and ideologies embedded within the international water disputes and laws. I use the concept of a dualism, the key in ecofeminism being men-industry/women-nature (Bile, 2011). Applying this to both the disputes and laws, I not only expound international societal values, elucidating a culture of an exclusive global citizenship that only protects the privileged sides of dualisms, but I also gain specific insight into the impacts of water-centric environmental disputes on the women involved. Through my analysis of the soft laws, each of them a unique piece of critical socio-environmental communication, I find in their attempt to change the impending challenges women face with sea level rise, they work in subversion, essentialising women into household roles. Further, in deconstructing the discourse and laws surrounding the water-as-resource disputes, I explicate how the soft laws as rhetoric are playing out in the material world where climate change and sea level rise are daily realities. 

Through these cases, I demonstrate the current challenges we face in crafting environmental law, the primary question being: in writing environmental legislation, how do we balance the reflection of women’s cultural reality with the creation of opportunity? To answer this question, I join together perspectives on environmental law, ecofeminism, and communication, recognising the underlying values communicated through environmental legislation in regards to women, and specifically its limited scope as purely soft law. In this communicative production of material effects, women are excluded global citizens, left with less water access while essentialised as the water-providers. While some work has been done at the intersection of environmental law and ecofeminism and some at the intersection of environmental law and communication, this paper connects the three, providing necessary insight into crafting legislation on women and the environment, rising above the surface of soft law stagnation and into a space of productivity and inclusiveness for both women and our shared environment.