Award Winning Journalist Stella Paul on COP21, Climate Change and Gender

Jessica Buchleitner with Stella Paul – WNN Interviews

With women who stopped multi-million, illicit sand mining industry by river Krishna in southern India
Award winning journalist Stella Paul (second from left) with a group of women who stopped multi-million dollar illicit sand mining 

(WNN) India, SOUTH ASIA – The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 21 or CMP 11 was held in Paris, France, from November 30 to December 12. The conference represented the 21st yearly session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 11th session of the Meeting of the Parties to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Representatives of 196 nations negotiated the Paris Agreement, a global agreement on the reduction of climate change set to become legally binding if joined by at least 55 countries which together represent at least 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Representatives from each country will need to sign the agreement in New York between April 22 2016 and April 21 2017, and also adopt it through ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession within their own legal systems.

The most significant among the legally binding portions is the commitment of each nation to submit—and review every five years—plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as wealthy nations’ pledge to provide by 2020 $100 billion to help poorer countries transition to alternative energy economies in addition to requiring increased transparency in governments to not only report national greenhouse gas emissions but also detail their sources.

Currently the U.N. estimates that 26 million people every year are displaced by natural disasters. Economic damage to developing countries from climate change, in the form of droughts, floods, hurricanes, agriculture loss and more, is estimated to reach $1.7 trillion a year by 2050.

While the affair serves to put climate change on the map and on the agenda for more governments, its resulting policies have received criticism.

First, there are no consequences if commitments are not met. The Paris Agreement also acknowledges that even if the individual country climate plans are fully and perfectly implemented, they would be insufficient, potentially resulting in temperature increases of over double the limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels “pursued” by the agreement.

Second, the financial pledge has come under scrutiny for being poorly defined as there is no apparent record regarding how much each country is going to pay and whether the funds will come from public or private entities within the country.

While discussions the conference instigated ensue, Interim Executive Editor Jessica Buchleitner spoke with award winning journalist Stella Paul about her coverage of vulnerable populations in India and her efforts to include the voices of women in the climate change equation.

Paul, who covered COP 21 in Paris, is based in India and tells the stories of women and girls who live amidst extreme vulnerabilities: climate change, disaster, conflicts, climate-induced poverty and exploitation, several of which have already brought direct impacts.

In her most recent impact, Laxmi – a marginal woman farmer forced into slavery in Hyderabad city was set free after a group of readers took action, demanding her release.

For her journalism, Paul has won several awards and honors, including the Asian Environmental Journalism Awards 2015, 2014 and 2013, All India Environmental Journalism Award 2014, National Media Award (India), the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitive Reporting (India) and over a dozen global press fellowships.

Besides being a journalist, Paul is also a media trainer and an advocate for gender equality. She is also a board member of World Pulse which is one of the largest global networks of women bloggers, activists and community influencers.

Jessica Buchleitner (JB): Much of your work has showcased the role of women’s voices in the climate change equation and your recent visit to India’s biggest drought-affected region, Vidarbha in the state of Maharashtra, proved they are being affected by way of the sex trade, an ulterior factor not considered before. Tell us about your work in the region and why its women are now subjected to this path.

Stella Paul (SP): In 2012 I won a fellowship from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and went to Inner Mongolia to see how locals there were fighting desertification and droughts. When I returned home, I was eager to find out how people in India here dealt with the same issues. I knew over a hundred thousand farmers had committed suicide in drought-prone regions across the country; it was all over the media and also often discussed in our parliament. But I wondered, what happened to the women of those farming families whose husbands committed suicide? How did they survive?

Unfortunately there were no reports – none at all – to help me find an answer. It was at this point that I read a government report that showed there was a big spike in commercial sex trade in some cities. I followed the trail of this report and began to meet NGOs and individual researchers who worked with sex workers. With their help, I interviewed nearly a hundred sex workers. An overwhelming majority of them turned out to be women from a farming family whose main bread-earner male relative (husband, father, brother) had committed suicide. To survive, they migrated to the city and were forced to take up sex work because no other jobs were available to them. Some were also brought (trafficked) to the city by pimps in brothels who promised to get them jobs.

In my opinion, each of these women became a sex worker because that was the only means of survival available to them and also because there was nobody to offer them an alternative livelihood or protection.

Stella Paul -India -headshot
Award winning journalist Stella Paul

JB: Your work received the environmental story of the year award at the Asian Journalism Awards in 2013 for your story published in 2012 on Thomson Reuters Foundation. What does this award signify in regard to climate change reporting, especially in factoring gender into the equation?

SP: When the awards were announced, one of the judges had commented that “heart breaking human stories took center stage” at the awards. I think this is what the awards essentially did: recognizing the connection between climate change and the state of women in the region’s most vulnerable regions.

As a journalist, that’s what I have been trying to do – tell the stories in a way where the unnoticed human factors get noticed and the unheard voices get heard. Neither drought, nor its effect on people is unheard, yet stories of how women suffer so miserably because of climatic changes are barely ever told. So, the fact that such a story was noticed and picked up for the top prize from entries from 63 countries, has been a reason to smile and be motivated.

Also, the story went on to bring a number of impacts – both locally and globally and that was perhaps because the award helped more people read it.

JB: What role did data play in your reporting of the region? What data sets did you use to conduct your research?

SP: Data is a crucial, yet a hard-to-find element in each of my stories. To get published in any responsible media, you have to back your narrative with credible figures and statistics. It’s also a part of journalism ethics that the statistics you quote are not only from credible sources, but are also not outdated.

Usually I use a mix of reports by different government and U.N. agencies as well as research institutes or think tanks. For example, for my story on farm women joining sex trade, I used a report by the federal government on the status of HIV and AIDS. I also collected some additional data from the city police.

But, since over 90 percent of my stories are on extremely marginalized and vulnerable communities, it’s extremely hard to find data that is both credible and recent. Often I have to rely on the primary data that is provided by the community members. However, it means, I have to talk to several such members – 30 to 40 individuals at a minimum – and spend several days at a stretch, for a single story.

What frustrates me sometimes though is that such efforts of journalists like me who work extra hard to produce authentic data are hardly ever supported. I am also amused to see how data journalism is often described as a technology issue while my experience says it’s also equally about courage and the will to tell a story against a thousand odds.

JB: In your presentation at the COP21 talks in Paris you spoke about reporting the issues of climate change through a gender lens. What are the most crucial elements of reporting through such a lens journalists should be aware of? How can they help improve the inclusiveness of their reporting?

SP: Ideally, gender isn’t only about women. But since women are the ones who are under reported, I look at the issue from their perspective. Typically, in a conference like a COP21, policy decisions are made on crucial issues like energy, economy, technology, etc. that will determine the future of not only one or two countries but the entire world. We need to begin by asking a few questions like, ‘how will these decisions impact or affect women?’, and ‘who are making these decisions? Are women a part of this decision making process, or, are they just watching from the sidelines?’ and ‘what do the women experts think about this?’

I think it is important that a journalist covering COP21 – or any other important global event like this – asks these questions and speaks with women- both within COP21 and outside.

A lighter moment in reporting - Joining men and woman of a forest tribe in a dance in Eastern ghat mountain of India
Stella Paul (third from right) engaging with men and women in a forest in India

JB: How would you suggest journalists and other media professionals to report on the gender issues highlighted at COP21? What were the most critical?

SP: The COP21 has a clear outcome: a document called the Paris Agreement. Whatever decisions have been made, are in that document. A look at the document and one can see how sparsely the word “gender” has been mentioned. In plain words, there are eight articles that spell out how the world will carry on its fight against climate change. The word “gender” is mentioned only in three of these. (One of my reports – filed from the conference details these: Paris Delivers Historic Climate Treaty, but Leaves Gender Untouched)

My suggestion to anyone interested in reporting the gender issue would be to speak with women leaders from various fields – academia, science, agriculture, business, finance etc. – to find out what they think about this inclusion and exclusion of gender in the agreement. How do they interpret this agreement? What do they hope and fear? That can be a beginner.

Then of course, there is a vast range of opportunities to tell stories of how these decisions are being carried forward by different countries and how they are changing the lives of women. The agreement that came out of COP21 is yet to be formally signed – a process that will begin in early 2016 and will continue until 2017.

The next COP – COP22 will take place even as the countries sign this agreement. A fair number of gender-focused stories in the media can even open up the road for greater inclusion of the gender in the agreement.

JB: You have said that the world’s attention should not only be focused on climate change, but on how women can be equal partners in mitigating its effects. How can women contribute in their communities, cities and countries?

SP: What I meant is that across the world, there is now a strong recognition of how climate change affects women more than it affects others. But , while recognizing women as victims of climate change, we also take note of how they are demonstrating amazing climate leadership. At present, we are not quite doing that.

I have interviewed women who live on the frontline of climate change – from the forests of Ecuador and east Africa to the islands of Alaska and from the mountains of Himalaya to the desert of Mongolia. These are ordinary women with little access to technology and education and yet they are leading their communities into taking positive climate actions such as reviving water bodies, restoring degraded land, stopping dangerous mining and illegal logging and so on. But these women are neither consulted by those who decide on climate, nor are they included into the climate decision making process. This is a huge failure and we need to mend this urgently.

With indigenous women who fight domestic violence in Betul district of central India
Stella Paul (second from left) with a group of indigenous women on a reporting assignment

JB: What are some of the most common roadblocks to women becoming involved in mitigating climate change in the areas you have reported in? Are there any viable solutions to these?

SP: Most of the women I have reported on deal with a number of challenges everyday:
1) Lack of education and information that is relevant to them.
2) Lack of access to land, finance and technology.
3) Lack of recognition.
4) Lack of rights to decide for themselves.

The best solution, as the women themselves have told me, is to give women equal opportunity, instead of a meager charity. To train them to hone their leadership skills, give them greater access to technology and better opportunities to market their produce while listening to their ideas and treating them with equal respect. These are some of the common solutions I have often heard them talk about.

JB: What can the U.N. encourage member states to do in order to mitigate the effects of climate change on society and also on specifically women?

SP: I think the U.N. really needs to be more democratic and more inclusive in their approach and advocacy.

Let me give you an example: For years now, I have been reporting on women who are extremely vulnerable to climate change. I have seen amazing examples of leadership there – women who are bringing positive change at the community level against all odds. But I have never heard any of these women leaders being contacted by any policy making body or any policy influencers’ forum outside of their community to share their experiences. “What a shame!” is something I often hear myself say.

I think the U.N. really needs to stress on the need of consulting with local women leaders and change bringers – instead of just a group of urban gender experts who are great academics, but have little knowledge of how things happen on the ground.

For further reading: 

– History of the UNFCCC Negotiations Infographic (pdf)

UNFCCC – 20 Years of Effort and Achievement (includes infographics, interviews with climate experts and an interactive timeline.)

Infographics on climate change: 

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Recognized by UNESCO for ‘Professional Journalistic Standards and Code of Ethics” WNN began in 2005 as a solo blogger’s project. Today it brings news stories on women from 5+ global regions to the attention of international ‘change-makers’ including the United Nations and over 600 NGO affiliates and United Nations agencies.

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