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Sisters on the planet

Recent International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrations raised the question of what is the appropriate balance between celebrating successful Australian women, and the noteworthy achievements of women elsewhere who face great hardships.

Along with many others, I had the opportunity to celebrate the bravery and resilience of women depicted in a series of short films called Sisters on the Planet. These are stories of the achievements of women living with little access to essential resources.

The films are a result of an IWD collaboration between Sustainable Illawarra and Oxfam Australia (who support a group of women leaders fighting climate change in their communities). The informative and inspirational films depict the daily efforts and worries women face in providing for their families and communities.

Through the films we meet Ursula Rakova, from the Carteret Islands, 86 kilometres north east of Bougainville. Ursula takes us to some of the smaller islands where the populations are preparing to leave due to rising sea levels. A woman on the island of Huene, where the sea has carved the land in two, tells us she lives in fear of the sea. On Han Island a woman chief reminds us that the relocation to mainland Bougainville was at a high cost:

We leave behind our livelihoods and culture.

Ursula simply states that rising sea levels and the displacement of peoples is a human rights issue, as she struggles to organise housing for 3,320 people whose homelands throughout the atoll are being swamped by seawater.

Sahena Begum, from Bangladesh, breaks tradition taking a leadership role in the Disaster Committee, where she and women neighbours prepare for floods. Sahena organises the onerous task of building clay ovens to be stored in high places with twigs and branches for future use during flooding. The extraordinary daily effort required to prepare food under harsh conditions is an ever-present issue for many women.

We hear the dry grass crunch under the feet of Martina Longom and her female neighbours in Uganda as they go out to collect fruits and firewood. ‘Every day we have to walk further to collect fruits and firewood,’ she says, as the audience sees the cracked earth and brown trees of her landscape. Martina helped build a borehole by digging through rock to reach drinking water. As you watch the women walk and hear the rustling sound of the scorched earth you feel thirsty. Martina desperate for answers says, ‘what can we do to end this thirst?’

The images in the films showing the daily drudgery to secure food are powerful, all the more so knowing that Australians throw out around $5.3 billion dollars of food each year.

Martina outlined how ‘some people in the village are being accused of putting a curse on the rain. But is it really people here who are damaging the rain patterns and climate?’

The Sisters on the Planet campaign invites action by supplying the women’s stories on DVD and recommending various strategies for ongoing lobbying. Importantly, they outline strategies for networking to bring about change.

IWD celebrations are an important opportunity to reflect on women’s achievements and the struggles still to be won. An emphasis on grassroots social justice campaigns here and overseas seems a fitting tribute to all women.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Sharon Callaghan writes pieces for the Illawarra Mercury that reflect social and political issues within the community. She has written in different publications on the rights of asylum seekers, democracy, nonviolence, racism, public space, community unionism, human rights and feminism.

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  1. Thanks for this excellent post. That video is heartbreaking and makes you realise how fortunate we are in Australia. Climate change skeptics are a dangerous mob and all need a refresher or beginners course in the scientific method. This is a time for listening to the science in a comprehensive rationale way (not cherry picking stuff to suit). The people who will be most affected will be the poor. Don’t forget to turn your lights off for Earth Hour – 8.30pm Saturday 27th March.

  2. Thanks Gabrielle. Yes, the catastrophic climate change that prevents these communities from producing the food staples they rely on is truly devastating. The room full of women viewing the films were clearly as moved and inspired as I was as most signed on to various action groups and will keep the conversation alive by showing the dvd of the films in small local gatherings.

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