Joan Carling speaks at Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany, in December 2017. GLF/Pilar Valbueno

Science-educated indigenous girls, women can help communities combat climate change

Joan Carling on education

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) – All women face hurdles establishing careers in science, but for indigenous women the challenges are amplified, said Joan Carling, co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development.

Empowering indigenous girls and women by helping them learn how to integrate traditional knowledge and science through quality education could help communities better understand the impact of climate change on their livelihoods, Carling said in an interview to mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Feb. 11.

“There are changes in the environment particularly affecting indigenous peoples, which their traditional knowledge can no longer understand,” Carling said. “Scientists are needed to do more studies and to be able to explain to the people, so that they can understand these changes.”

Financial constraints, patriarchal attitudes, discrimination and a non-enabling environment reduce access of indigenous people to education, particularly girls and women in rural areas, she said.

According to statistics from the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO, women at higher levels of education equal only 35 percent of the total number of students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Only 28 percent of science researchers worldwide are women.

While 18 percent of women in STEM fields graduate with a bachelor’s degree, the number drops significantly at higher levels, with 8 percent graduating with a master’s degree and only 2 percent graduating with a doctoral degree, UNESCO reports. For men, the parallel averages are 37 percent, 18 percent and 6 percent.


Overall, the UNESCO data affirm what the women’s movement, including indigenous women, state: that there are fewer opportunities for women and girls to achieve higher education in any discipline, in addition to the sciences, Carling said.

“They show the continuing serious problem of the dominance of the patriarchal system where women are regarded as inferior to men,” she said, adding that indigenous women should have more opportunities, including access to grants and scholarships from childhood.

Social and cultural dimensions also affect the ability for indigenous girls and women to get involved in the sciences, including language barriers, discriminatory attitudes that promote negative notions that they are incapable, they are inferior, or that they are better off doing domestic work, Carling said.

The prevailing perspective often questions the rationale for sending girls to school because they are expected to get married and become mothers, she said.

Indigenous girls are often excluded from education at the primary level because classes are taught in the national language, not their mother tongue.

“A lot of studies on access to education point to the fact that a lot of indigenous girls drop out, or that girls aren’t encouraged to go to school, because they can’t speak the language,” Carling said.

“It’s totally alienating for them – a study comparing indigenous girls with access to mother-tongue education at the primary level showed that a higher percentage reach a higher level of education and develop their talents, their skills and knowledge,” she said.


Fundamental changes must occur, including addressing the severe inequality and discrimination of the patriarchal system.

“There are more indigenous women in science in developed countries — in developed countries somehow they have more opportunities and access to higher learning because of scholarships and grants,” Carling said. “Norway, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., even Canada, have indigenous women in science, but I’m pretty confident that there are far less in terms of percentage than men, or comparable even to women in general in terms of ratio.”

Despite their lower access to formal education, indigenous women are knowledge holders in their own right due to their daily interactions with the environment, Carling said. In a sense, women are already involved in science because they have knowledge that didn’t necessarily come from school, and that knowledge can be enriched and developed by formal education, she added.

“They’re very sharp in terms of building up their traditional knowledge – for example, what are the plants that have medicinal values, when is the right time to plant certain kinds of seeds, what plants can be used as natural fertilizers or what are the nutritious foods,” Carling said.

“This is knowledge that indigenous women have, and yet this isn’t acknowledged so that they can further it and integrate it with scientific knowledge because of the lack of opportunity – lack of acknowledgment and appreciation of their knowledge and also lack of the enabling environment for them to further their knowledge in different fields of science.”

Traditional knowledge is “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment,” writes UNESCO’s Douglas Nakashima, citing ecologist Fikret Berkes, a professor at Canada’s University of Manitoba, in the UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030.

Currently, UNESCO and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are combining indigenous and traditional knowledge with science in efforts to respond to climate change.


The U.N. development framework includes a provision through Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, to develop policies and legislation that ensure women can achieve gender equality by 2030.

“I think these are opportunities to really push, but it really takes political will and different forms of action, from policy reforms to actual implementation because we also need to change the social aspect, the view that women are inferior,” Carling said.

SDG 4 addresses the need for inclusive and equal access to education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.

“That’s part of the enabling environment – if women feel discriminated against, if they’re always made to feel inferior, then the tendency is really to drop out (of school). It’s not encouraging for them, and they have to struggle every day to assert themselves if they’re in the kind of environment where they’re always seen as inferior, where they’re bullied or subject to forms of harassment,” Carling said.

The patriarchal system is not just in the non-indigenous community, but also within our own culture and systems and in the wider society – even in indigenous systems women lack participation in decision-making, she said.

Carling also recommends the use of social media to positively promote women and tell stories about the contributions of women.

“There’s a cycle of disempowerment of women – because of their lack of education they won’t be able to develop their talents, their skills and further their knowledge in that sense,” she added. “They get trapped in a cycle of poverty, cycle of discrimination, economic disempowerment, lack of confidence to participate in decision-making.”



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