Maldives Activist Says Democracy is Essential for Credible Leadership on Fighting Climate Change

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Posted Oct. 2, 2013

Interview with Thilmeeza Hussain, International Women's Earth and Climate Initiative Summit conference delegate and founder of Voice of Women, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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The International Women's Earth and Climate Initiative held a three-day summit on Sept. 20-23 in Suffern, N.Y., just north of New York City. One hundred women environmental leaders from 35 countries attended, with almost equal representation from the global North and South. Together, they developed a women's climate action agenda addressing both climate policy and on-the-ground solutions.

Thilmeeza Hussain, one of the delegates attending, is founder of Voice of Women, the only non-governmental organization in the Maldives that addresses the issues of women and climate change. She is also a member of Climate Wise Women, a global platform promoting women's leadership on climate change. Hussain represented the Maldives at the United Nations when Mohammed Nasheed, the nation’s first democratically-elected head of state was president. Under his leadership, the Maldives became an aggressive campaigner for international action on climate change.

President Nasheed was famous for holding a Cabinet meeting underwater to illustrate the danger of rising ocean levels to small island nations such as the Maldives. In early 2012, Nasheed claims he was forced to resign at gunpoint, the result of a coup triggered by a mutiny of the police and army in collaboration with the country's former dictator. He remained in the country under the protection of the people, according to Hussain, and is currently the leading candidate to become president once again. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Thilmeeza Hussain at the International Women's Earth and Climate Summit. She describes the work of Climate Wise Women and then discusses the role of democracy in asserting leadership on the critical issues of climate change.

THILMEEZA HUSSAIN: It's an organization that actually advocates for women's issues from around the world. We have members from various continents, and grassroots women who come and talk about the plight of people in their countries and what they're doing and what's happening because of climate change impacts in their countries, so, bringing attention of the international community to what's happening in their regions.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Your deposed president held a Cabinet meeting underwater to demonstrate the dangers of climate change, putting the whole nation underwater. What's the situation there now?

THILMEEZA HUSSAIN: Well, we had our first democratic election in 2008 and three years later we had a coup that overthrew our first elected president, President Nasheed, out of the office. And since then we've been fighting to restore democracy in the country. People have come out in the streets in large numbers, especially women. We've seen the largest women's protests ever in the history of our country, who has come out in support of President Nasheed, mostly because of his economic and social policies that have empowered women to restore democracy, to restore human rights, to restore women's rights, to bring law and order back to the country, because unless we have law and order, unless we have democracy, unless there is respect for women's rights and basic human dignity, we cannot fight on issues. So that's what we've been doing for the past two years. Our slogan has been "Forward, forward, faster forward." That means we are not looking back; we are going forward and we will not stop until we restore democracy in our country.

BETWEEN THE LINES: It seems there's been a connection mentioned by some people between democracy and climate change, where, if there isn't democracy, if people don't really have a say in how things go, then corporations, for example, will do whatever they want and pollute the planet and be sort of beyond the control of any nation's people or nation's voters. You're talking about [restoring] democracy where there was an actual coup, but do you see any connection in your country between those issues?

THILMEEZA HUSSAIN: Absolutely. And President Nasheed has very nicely said, "We cannot have a planet without democracy, and we cannot have democracy without a planet," so it goes hand in hand. From what has happened in the past five years, it is very clear to us, because when President Nasheed came to office in 2008 and we had a democratic election, our country was able to talk in the international platforms with a voice much louder and stronger than ever before, and though we were such a small country we were able to fight on issues, bring international attention to the plight of the Maldivians and other small island states on the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation and what our people had been suffering. And we were able to do that because we had a democracy, so we are able to speak with moral authority because we had that platform. We were a country representing people's voice. But once we had the coup, the voice of the Maldivian people in the international platform were just silent, dead. For the past two years, in none of the environmental negotiations, or even anywhere else, you haven't heard Maldivians talking about environmental issues or issues that are important, issues that are necessary for our survival because the government that is in place, which is led by the leader who led the coup, is not able to go and speak with that moral authority in international platforms any more.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Are women in the Maldives disproportionately impacted by climate change, do you know?

THILMEEZA HUSSAIN: I would say that women, not just in Maldives, but women everywhere are disproportionately impacted by climate change, especially when you have disasters like the tsunami we experienced in 2004, it is the women who are impacted most, women who are subjected to abuse and harassment, especially living in temporary shelters, so women are always more disproportionately affected by climate change.

Learn more about the Women's Climate Action Agenda by visiting the International Women's Earth and Climate Initiative at www.iweci.org.

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