asia

The young female climate activists driving change in Asia


For Asia, where more countries are facing greater environmental risks than in other parts of the globe, climate change is an imminent issue that could threaten the lives of people through natural disasters, displacement from homes and shortages of natural resources.

According to an environmental risk assessment published in May, Asia is home to 99 of the world’s 100 most vulnerable cities. The report found 80% of these are in India or China, while Jakarta was named the city most vulnerable to environmental hazards.

Research also shows the most marginalized people will experience the greatest impact from climate change. U.N. figures indicate that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. Indigenous people, who comprise less than 5% of the world population, protect 80% of global biodiversity and face constant battles to preserve their livelihoods from the exploitation of natural resources.

From raising awareness of the climate emergency and tackling injustices, to defending and empowering the most exposed communities and their human rights, young women in Asia are among a growing number of climate activists demanding greater action on one of the defining issues of this generation.

The following are five inspiring young female leaders currently driving change in Asia.

Marinel Sumook Ubaldo (Philippines)

At 16, Ubaldo was already aware of climate change through her role as a youth leader at children’s rights group Plan International. But when Typhoon Haiyan struck her hometown in the Philippines in 2013, killing more than 7,000 people, it all became personal.

“It destroyed my home and my community,” says Ubaldo. “Some of my friends and relatives died. My life completely turned around.

“I was confused and devastated by the reality I was facing,” she adds.

When Typhoon Haiyan struck her hometown in the Philippines in 2013, killing more than 7,000 people, climate change became a personal issue for Marinel Sumook Ubaldo. | COURTESY OF MARINEL SUMOOK UBALDO
When Typhoon Haiyan struck her hometown in the Philippines in 2013, killing more than 7,000 people, climate change became a personal issue for Marinel Sumook Ubaldo. | COURTESY OF MARINEL SUMOOK UBALDO

To this day, it has been a mission for the 23-year-old to raise awareness of environmental change at home and abroad.

The climate activist helped organize the first youth climate strike in the Philippines in 2019 and has since spoken at U.N. climate conferences.

Ubaldo continues to lobby governments worldwide on environmental issues, advocating for a ban on single-use plastics, the reduction of carbon emissions and investment in renewable energy.

“Climate change is not just an issue of adaptation and mitigation but also an issue of human rights,” she says. “Because during climatic disasters, we are being deprived of the basic rights that we are entitled to enjoy — a safe environment, water, food, shelter, the right to education, protection, development and nutrition. Gender-based violence increases when there are disasters.”

Ubaldo has testified as a community witness for the Philippines Commission on Human Rights as part of an investigation into corporate responsibility and whether the effects of climate change can be considered violations of human rights.

“I aimed to share my story and the story of my community across the globe to shed light on the reality of climate change,” she says.

Avani Awasthee (India)

In 2016, polar explorer Avani Awasthee embarked on a journey to Antarctica as part of an international team to raise awareness of climate change, becoming the youngest Indian to reach the continent at just 18.

“The South Pole is in a disastrous situation and melting fast due to the rapid increase in temperatures,” says Awasthee, who witnessed melting icebergs and the impact of climate change firsthand on her expedition.

Avani Awasthee was awarded the prestigious Karmaveer Chakra Award for her environmental efforts in 2019. | COURTESY OF AVANI AWASTHEE
Avani Awasthee was awarded the prestigious Karmaveer Chakra Award for her environmental efforts in 2019.
| COURTESY OF AVANI AWASTHEE

Awasthee first got involved in environmental issues when she saw a competition run by the Energy and Resources Institute. The task was to make a short film answering two separate questions on how to raise awareness around the benefits of recycling in India and how to help save Antarctica.

“I strongly believe today’s youth is tomorrow’s future,” says the climate activist.

She won the competition and created a “recycling army,” recruiting people in the city of Pune to learn about the importance of recycling.

“A school competition turned into a real passion quickly,” Awasthee says. While in Denmark completing her studies, she became aware of how the Danish government was working to improve sustainability in the country, which further fueled her interest.

The part-time model, based in Pune, works with eco-friendly and sustainable brands across the country, and in 2019 was awarded the prestigious Karmaveer Chakra Award for her environmental efforts

“I think youth advocacy is instrumental in building reforms and is a step towards bringing change,” she asserts. The 23-year-old has visited Antarctica twice and was selected as Miss Tourism Metropolitan India in 2019.

“As much as climate activism makes you believe in your cause even more, it teaches you immense patience and commitment,” Awasthee says. “It also has an extraordinary potential to transform communities.”

Mayumi Sato (Japan)

The Yokohama-born climate activist has worked across Southeast Asia, focusing on the social impacts of deforestation, landscape restoration and climate mitigation. Through working with Shan migrant workers and refugees from Myanmar who had fled to northern Thailand, she learned of the forced exodus of their communities.

“It was often due to the fact that the lands on which they live have rich natural resources that the government wants to extract,” she says.

Mayumi Sato (far left) at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in September 2019. | COURTESY OF MAYUMI SATO
Mayumi Sato (far left) at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in September 2019. | COURTESY OF MAYUMI SATO

The 26-year-old, who starts her Ph.D. studies in sociology as a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge later this year, formerly worked as a research associate at the Center for People and Forests, an international nonprofit organization in Bangkok.

She worked with government ministries, local women’s groups and wood and furniture associations to understand the different perspectives on how climate change and policies affect different community livelihoods.

“We know that globally, women and girls are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to societal and cultural norms that often make them more reliant users of natural resources like water and forest products,” she says.

“I hope through progressive young voices, we can start to raise some of the interlinkages between existing social and political problems in Japan today with the climate crisis.”

Sato has recently been involved with the Youth Landscapes Initiative, a global movement of young environmentalists and climate activists working for landscape restoration and justice around the world. As well as research, she writes for the Global Landscapes Forum and has set up her own organization called the Solidarity Library.

“I’m passionate about being able to communicate the lived experiences and consequences of climate change from the grassroots to public visibility,” Sato says.

Natalie Sum Yue Chung (Hong Kong)

As co-founder and director of youth-run social enterprise V’air, Chung educates young people about low-carbon local travel through eco-tours, talks, workshops, publications and research.

“Simple consciousness gradually blossomed into a sense of responsibility and mission,” she says.

Natalie Sum Yue Chung, co-founder and director of the youth-run social enterprise V'air, educates young people about low-carbon local travel through eco tours, talks, workshops, publications and research. | COURTESY OF NATALIE SUM YUE CHUNG
Natalie Sum Yue Chung, co-founder and director of the youth-run social enterprise V’air, educates young people about low-carbon local travel through eco tours, talks, workshops, publications and research. | COURTESY OF NATALIE SUM YUE CHUNG

V’air draws attention to climate change and nature conservation in Hong Kong, with a commitment to environmental education, sustainable tourism and policy advocacy in Asia.

“The vision of V’air is to build a green movement in Hong Kong by influencing behavioral change towards a low-carbon lifestyle,” says Chung. “We’ve also established close partnerships with environmental groups from around the world to exchange ideas on city-level decarbonization.”

Chung has spearheaded a number of educational initiatives over the past few years. These include launching the V’air Fellowship Program, a mentoring program for secondary and tertiary students in Hong Kong with a passion for sustainability.

The 24-year-old, who is completing her master’s degree in environmental change and management at the University of Oxford, is also a curator of a sustainability careers mentorship program run by the World Economic Forum Global Shapers for students in the British city.

“Youth engagement is indispensable for ensuring just transition in mitigating climate change,” says Chung. “Their voices are integral to generate awareness and innovative ideas to tackle the imminent climate crisis.”

Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar (Malaysia)

Ili Nadiah co-founded the grassroots organization Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY) with the aim of strengthening civic engagement and empowering vulnerable groups to participate in climate action. The organization also partners with Malaysia’s Indigenous people who are battling to preserve their livelihoods and forest lands.

“Policies that are centered on equity and justice must include vulnerable groups in decision-making processes,” says Ili Nadiah, who was first exposed to activism through the feminist movement.

“We nurture peace building in our climate work by empowering vulnerable groups affected most by climate impacts and injustice to create their own spaces in the climate movement where they can speak and participate meaningfully.”

Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar co-founded the grassroots organization Klima Action Malaysia with the aim of strengthening civic engagement and empowering vulnerable groups to participate in climate action. | COURTESY OF ILI NADIAH DZULFAKAR
Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar co-founded the grassroots organization Klima Action Malaysia with the aim of strengthening civic engagement and empowering vulnerable groups to participate in climate action. | COURTESY OF ILI NADIAH DZULFAKAR

With a technical background in electrical engineering and environmental science, Ili Nadiah was well positioned to help set up the group in March 2019. The organization has since pushed for political commitments and climate education in the country.

Ili Nadiah speaks of the “deep-rooted systematic injustice” of natural resources exploitation and class-based struggles such as racial discrimination, gender inequity and unequal wealth distribution.

“Speaking out against these injustices draws all sorts of implications — from physical, mental health and cybersecurity threats,” she says.

However, she remains defiant, and KAMY’s work has pushed many Malaysians to rethink climate solutions and integrate human rights and democracy into climate governance.

“Through the Weaving the Hopes for the Future project, we’re heavily invested in building that bridge to ensure Indigenous voices remain strong in climate negotiation spaces locally, regionally and internationally.”

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