The Significance of Women and Mother-led Social Change in the Pacific-Asia Region

Engaging and uplifting the effective roles of women, mothers, intergenerational relationships, Indigenous knowledge, and frontline communities to advance climate action and positive peace.


The climate crisis impedes our reach for equality. Climate-related impacts are deepening societal and environmental inequalities. Disproportionately affecting youth and future generations, women, Indigenous peoples, under-resourced populations, and geographically vulnerable regions like the Pacific-Asia Region and the Global South.

Weaving together the intersections of gender, frontline populations, intergenerational relationships, and Indigenous perspectives into the fabric of climate solutions, will address disproportionate climate-related effects felt by these groups. Uplifting the effective roles of these essential groups to advance climate action and positive peace, will deliver an equitable and sustainable future.

The Institute for Climate and Peace (ICP) undertook extensive secondary research in 2022 that looked at the opportunities of women and mother-led social change, intergenerational dialogue, Indigenous and traditional knowledge, and social well-being in the context of climate change in the Pacific-Asia Region. This work is core to our Institute’s founding purpose, mission, vision, and organizational values and will be fundamental aspects of our initiatives in the near future. Findings from our research are presented in our newly published white paper and factsheet found on our website. This blog will share highlights from those larger pieces suggesting that programming and policies should consider five priorities:

  1. The Mental Health and Well-Being of Women and Mothers;
  2. The Psychological Dimensions of Climate Change and Ecological Degradation;
  3. Uplifting and Educating Women and Girls in Climate Change;
  4. Deeper Levels of Engagement with Local and Community-Based Programs; and
  5. Utilizing Intergenerational Approaches and Indigenous Knowledge.

Climate Change in the Pacific-Asia Region

The Pacific-Asia Region lies at the forefront of the climate crisis, encountering effects such as: coastal erosion, sea-level rise, flooding, ocean acidification, heatwaves, droughts, and extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tropical storms. In the Pacific-Asia region, 2.4 billion people live in low-lying coastal areas, 60% of people work in sectors highly prone to changing weather patterns, and 200 million people depend on fisheries and healthy oceans. Climate-related impacts are subsequently causing low crop yields, food insecurity, job loss, forced displacement and migration, health disparities, cultural decimation, and high mortality rates.

Small island countries in the Pacific such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru, and Vanuatu, are experiencing disasters and environmental changes that affect the majority of their populations. In Aotearoa, climate change threatens traditional Māori practices that are central to their well-being and identity. The loss of cultural sites and taonga (treasured species), in addition to significant changes in tohu (environmental indicators), identify the threat climate change poses to cultural preservation and deterrances in the transfer of knowledge to forthcoming generations. Similarly, for Kānaka ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiians), the detachment from traditional lands has a negative effect on the spiritual and mental health of the people. Climate change has already contributed to the decimation of 1.5 million acres of native forest, and 550 Hawaiian cultural sites are exposed to chronic flooding with sea level rise.

The major threats the Pacific-Asia region is facing from climate change, points to the significance of shifting our focus to respond and uplift frontline groups in the region. Drawing on their Indigenous expertise and unique cultures, climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilience efforts can be meaningfully implemented.

Maternal Activism

The impacts generated by women and mothers at the epicenter of catalytic movements have been made clear throughout history. Being central changemakers in voting rights, gun violence, air pollution, environmental and cultural guardianship, human rights, and now: Climate change.

Women and mothers carry a powerful influence within social justice and peacebuilding arenas, and can greatly contribute to creating an equitable, safer, and sustainable society for themselves, their children, and future generations. However, it is important to recognize the barriers women and mothers face in their daily lives — and throughout their lifetimes — that challenge their abilities to do so.

The COVID-19 pandemic is just one example of the exacerbation of challenges women and mothers face during times of crises. Globally, 41% of women have indicated a decline in their mental and emotional health, and across 38 countries, the number of women who reported mental health impacts from COVID-19 was threefold that of men. In the U.S, January 2022 has seen the lowest percentage of women in the workforce since 1988, bearing the brunt of unpaid labor and childcare. In Hawaiʻi, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Immigrant women were among the most affected by COVID-19, where existing systemic inequalities have significantly deepened social, economic, and health disparities. The pandemic has setback gender parity by 36 years, with a trajectory of now 135.6 years to close the gender gap worldwide.

Existing structures are causing significant disparities for women and mothers. Indicating that women’s representation needs to be uplifted, women need to be put in positions of leadership, and social well-being needs to be prioritized.

Prioritizing well-being is crucial for women and mothers to thrive — to feel good about themselves, have confidence in their abilities, utilize their skills, and have the autonomy to follow their passions. Peer-support, self-care, and engaging in meaningful activities that support whole person care, are some ways to improve the well-being and resilience of women. Recognizing well-being is an integral factor that ensures that women and mothers have the capacity to sustain their voices and presence in society as central changemakers.

Channeling the social capital of women and mothers in the climate movement can greatly advance climate justice for an inclusive and livable future for not only themselves but also for their descendants. Studies show 81% of U.S mothers are concerned about climate change, and 93% say they feel morally responsible to create a safe and healthy climate for themselves and their children. By simultaneously creating spaces and opportunities that center women and mother’s voices — while tending to aspects of social well-being — climate justice can be better led by women and further addressed for generations to come.

Women and mothers are uniquely positioned to make real and effective systemic changes. Their lived experiences, familial and community ties, and strong social capital puts them in positions to truly understand the problems and solutions that are needed to enact change. Across the Pacific-Asia Region, women and mothers are leading social change movements in environmental and cultural guardianship, ensuring sustainable and equitable futures, and in human rights advocacy. From leading marine conservation efforts in Fiji, advocating for clean air in India, or protecting sacred sites in Aotearoa, women and mothers are at the forefront of change.

A Feminist Approach to Climate Justice

Women and girls are among the most affected by climate change, as disproportionate impacts cause significant spikes in gender-based violence, health-related issues, migration status, and mortality rates in the midst of disasters. Existing patriarchal and colonial structures are heavily and perpetually failing women and girls. Like the pandemic, climate change will bear similar and more catastrophic ramifications that will further deepen these systemic fractures. Furthermore, systemic discrimination toward gender non-conforming groups is likely to contribute to additional and significant climate-induced disparities.

Shifting the apex of our focus to the needs and leadership of women, girls, and gender-diverse peoples, recognizing the compounding and intersectional forms of discrimination that are manifesting, and pushing for deep transformative system-wide change is imperative.

Women leaders have shown to reduce carbon emissions, strengthen conservation efforts, increase support for climate mitigation policies, improve children’s health and education levels, and advance peacebuilding. Signifying the importance of creating entry points and opportunities for women, girls, and gender-diverse individuals in capacity-building, education, activism and advocacy, and in leadership roles. Key among gender-responsive systemic change, is imminent socio-cultural shifts that change the way we view women, girls, and gender-diverse participation.

The climate crisis is an opportunity to catalyze the roles women, girls, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and LGBTQ+ groups represent as populations of focus to accelerate climate action, positive peace, and just systems. Advancing gender-responsive systemic change, prioritizing well-being, and advocating for equitable and inclusive representation and opportunities are fundamental aspects to the climate movement and necessary drivers for societal change. It is all encompassing to advance gender equality and climate justice to turn the tide to a more inclusive, diverse, and sustainable future that represents the holistic spectrum of society.

Intergenerational Opportunities

One of the leading issues fueled by the climate crisis is Intergenerational Equity: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”.

As mothers, caregivers, parents, guardians, and maternal figures, the looming concern of climate change is ever present when pondering the state of the world children are stepping into. Youths have contributed the least to climate change yet will face profound challenges in its wake. It is natural for us to be concerned about what our futures, and the futures of younger generations will look like.

To create long-term behavior change within individuals and systems, we have to work intergenerationally. Intergenerational approaches recognize the interconnected and interdependent nature that exists between genealogical relationships. It recognizes that generations have multidimensional influences on each other as significant intervention points for climate-resilient behaviors, whose solutions have the best chance to maximize impact.

So how do we start?

Have conversations. The Yale Program on Climate Communications report: 2 in 3 people (67%) rarely or never have conversations about climate change or global warming. By beginning to have these conversations about climate change and our feelings and concerns towards it, we can start to make meaningful changes in our daily lives and take actionable steps to mitigate climate change in our communities, countries, and further into the global landscape. By working intergenerationally, we can channel our energies towards solutions and deepen our compassion, connections, and understandings of one another, and take active roles in securing each other’s futures.

Social Well-Being & Ecological Empathy

The widespread and seemingly irrevocable implications of climate change can be an inescapable and overwhelming cognitive endeavor for individuals. The inseparable linkages between health and the natural world, indicate social well-being and mental health as important dimensions to illuminate.

For example, eco-anxiety is the “chronic fear of environmental doom” as described by the American Psychological Association.

The uncomfortable enormity, grief, guilt, fear, and uncertainty that many people experience in response to the climate crisis, can be debilitating. To make sure we aren’t harboring the weight of this crisis on our own, we can begin to turn eco-anxiety into action by having courageous conversations with others, and engaging in difficult dialogue to mitigate climate change.

Building resilience within ourselves and our communities are important behaviors to respond to the changing climate. Cultivating individual resilience can begin by fostering optimism and hope, finding personal meaning and self-worth, nurturing sources of support, and strengthening place-based connections. Resilient communities can engage in activities that preserve cultural connections and build social cohesion. In addition to expanding mental health services, crafting disaster response and recovery plans, and encouraging inclusive civic involvement.

We can begin to understand the value of climate action by engaging in efforts to cultivate ecological empathy. Ecological empathy encompasses realizing and feeling the intrinsic connections we hold with the living environment, and therefore living sustainably and in harmony with the natural world — recognizing that harm to the planet harms us too. By spending time in nature, and increasing our capacities for empathy and connection to our natural surroundings, we are better equipped to respond to environmental challenges and enhance our ecological stewardship. Recognizing the important role the environment plays in sustaining life, and the enormous threat that is up against it, can encourage us to heal our planet and our relationship with it.

By focusing on the psychological dimensions of climate change, increasing our agency for women, mothers, and children, and widening our capacities for compassion, empathy, and connection, there is a significant opportunity to invest in preventive health to mitigate negative mental health implications. While simultaneously enhancing our connections with each other, ourselves, and the environment.

Indigenous Knowledge & Community-Grounded Solutions

Indigenous peoples have long recognized the intrinsic connections we share with the natural world, and are exemplary stewards of land, supporting 80% of the world’s biodiversity. The ancient wisdom carried by Indigenous peoples creates experts steeped in traditional ecological knowledge. Their holistic approaches help to enhance climate resilience and environmental conservation within their ecosystems. Through diverse perspectives, creative solutions, and meaningful connections, multicultural and Indigenous approaches kindle significant action and lasting change for protection and peace.

Historically, Indigenous knowledge and practices have been greatly oppressed in the Pacific-Asia Region. Therefore, just solutions amplify Indigenous voices to be at the forefront of this crisis to re-envision our relationship with the land, as we move away from profit-driven, exploitative measures. By integrating Indigenous knowledge and traditional practices into the solutions and frameworks of climate mitigation strategies, sustainable development, and conservation efforts, we can begin to revive our connections to the environment and strive for global healing.

Kānaka ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiians) have long lived by the practices of Mālama ʻāina. These traditions encompass caring for, and having reverence for, the land. It also describes the reciprocal relationship we have with the natural world. Mālama ʻāina teaches us how we can be mindful, compassionate, and respectful cohabitants with Mother Earth, and is an element of Indigenous knowledge which is carried intergenerationally through matriarchal values. Mālama ʻāina is vital for climate solutions which are positive and generative for Hawai‘i.

Therefore, ground-up, community-based approaches that integrate Indigenous perspectives, are key drivers to addressing impacts on local levels, and can be the catalysts for enhancing relationships between ourselves, the environment, and our communities. By leveraging ground-up approaches, place-based solutions can be tailored to the specific impacts certain communities face whether atoll or metropolis. Further engaging people at the local and community level can unlock the potential to form creative solutions, and advance social cohesion and community resilience. As environmental changes have the potential to spur conflict, when mobilized from a community-centered approach, communities are better apt to respond to challenges and contribute to achieving long-term sustainable peace.

Holistic Implications & Far-Reaching Results

The holistic nature of climate change signifies numerous entry points that can advance climate action. Peaceful societies centered around just, inclusive, and sustainable systems will have the farthest-reaching results.

Implementing an intersectional lens to climate and peacebuilding solutions is imperative to address the numerous challenges and disparities that occur as a result of climate change. As inequities operate together and will be amplified because of climate change, it is crucial to build communities around solutions. The solutions we invest in should elevate the inherent wisdom, power, ingenuity, and voices of frontline communities and groups.

As a non-profit founded by and operated by Indigenous and Pacific Island women, mothers, and caregivers, ICP is organizing solutions led by women, mothers, and their children through our programs, research, network leadership, and policy transformation. Frontline communities and grassroots groups led by women and mothers in the Pacific-Asia region can be cornerstones for justice and lasting change. We are broadening and deepening what climate mitigation, adaptation, and resiliency efforts can look like when we are in the right relationship with one another, the environment, and those for whom we care.

. . .

Healani Goo is an apprentice with the Institute for Climate and Peace and is a recent graduate from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Certificate in Peace and Conflict Studies. As a young Native Hawaiian woman, she aims to continue supporting climate justice and peacebuilding efforts within the Pacific-Asia region. In addition to continuing her studies on the interrelated dimensions of peace, gender, and the environment.

Kealoha Fox is a senior advisor with the Institute for Climate and Peace and is a mentor to Healani Goo. A graduate of the John A. Burns School of Medicine, she is the recipient of more than 50 awards and distinctions, including being named one of the 20 leaders to follow for the next 20 years in 2022 by Hawaii Business Magazine and a 2022 candidate for the prestigious Pritzker Environmental Genius Award. As a Native Hawaiian woman, Kealoha has been deeply and purposefully trained by esteemed community elders in traditional and ancient Native Hawaiian practices and protocol such as ho‘oponopono, hāhā, and lā‘au lapa‘au.


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