‘Put kids first’: India’s Warrior Moms fight for clean air at Cop27

“Nobody else will jump into the fire to save a child besides a mother,” says Bhavreen Kandhari, the co-founder of Warrior Moms in India, a network of mothers pushing for clean air and climate action. “There is nobody else in the world who loves you more than your mother – a mother is always protecting.”

Kandhari is part of a delegation of mothers from the Our Kids’ Climate and Parents For Future Global networks at Cop27 making an impassioned plea to world leaders to put children’s health, rights and futures at the heart of the climate summit.

“What is the most important thing to a parent?” Kandhari says. “To keep your child safe and healthy and to give them a good future. How does that happen in the midst of a climate and pollution crisis?”

Air pollution and the climate crisis are both caused by the burning of fossil fuels and more than 90% of children worldwide inhale dirty air. Kandhari has just arrived from her home in Delhi, where a few days before, the air pollution level went off the charts and closed schools.

Related: Inside Delhi’s air pollution crisis

“My twin girls are now 18 and I have been battling for two decades,” she says. “But I’ve not been able to help them and they have damaged lungs. So that urgency and desperation of mothers is the reason that we are here and stressing to leaders to keep the kids first in every decision – and why shouldn’t they because they are parents too.”

Maya Mailer, the co-director of Our Kids’ Climate and the co-founder of the UK climate parent group Mothers Rise Up, says: “We are bringing the emotion and the heart. You walk around Cop and there’s just panels talking and words, words, words. Unless you connect with people emotionally, they are not going to move or be brave.

“All of these world leaders ultimately have a heart and that’s what we’re trying to pierce, so they can stand up to the vested interests,” she says. “Their kids are on the line as well. Mothers bring relentless determination because you will do anything for your kids and we’re not going to give up or go away. Our movement is growing, because it’s ‘everything is at stake’.”

The mothers launched a short film at Cop27, featuring children from 16 countries, aged three to 16. In the film, Chislain, eight, from Togo, says: “I want to live in a world that is not too hot … When I grow up I would like to live in a world full of trees, with beautiful birdsong.”

Xoli Fuyani is part of Our Kids’ Climate and the South African group Black Girls Rising which works with young black girls from marginalised communities. “The climate clock is no longer ticking, it has exploded,” she says.

Related: Give Africa’s youth a voice on climate action. It is their future at stake | Graça Machel

“When I was a child, I was not thinking about climate change,” Fuyani says. “I was living my life, playing in the streets and chasing butterflies. It’s not fair that young kids are fighting the battles that we’ve created for them. That’s why, as parents, we carry a very strong voice. It’s time to put kids first!”

Children have been heavily affected by climate-related disasters this year. Two months on from the floods in Pakistan, schools for more than 2 million children remain inaccessible. At least 10 million children in the Horn of Africa are affected by drought, and in Nigeria 1.5 million children are at risk of disease and malnutrition because of floods.

Lais Fleury, from the Alana Institute in Brazil, which promotes children’s rights, says: “I am here to bring the voice of my daughters and the voice of kids from all over the world. Kids represent a third of the population of the world, and they are the most vulnerable and most impacted by the climate crisis. In 2021, we have 1 billion children and youth impacted by climate change.”

Fleury said that in almost 30 years of Cop summits, the final decisions agreed have never included the rights of children: “So let’s fight to incorporate children’s rights into climate action.”

Dr Maria Neira, from the World Health Organization, who joined the mothers for the film launch, said: “World leaders better watch out. The mothers are coming and they care about their children’s health and futures passionately. We have to move to clean energy as quickly as possible. Our children’s health and futures demand nothing less.”