Gender equality a fundamental principle for effective international climate policy

(This article was originally published here)

The impact of climate change on people depends on factors such as geographic location, social status, level of income, age, race, class, and, of course, gender. Existing and pervasive social inequalities deeply influence how vulnerable or resilient a certain group of people is to climate change, and how quickly they are able to recover from adverse effects. Climate change impacts and responses to them also perpetuate and exacerbate these inequalities.

After more than a decade of conspicuously “gender-blind” decision-making on the global response to climate change, countries have only now started to pay serious attention to gender equality at the international climate change negotiations. Just as countries need to develop gender-sensitive policies at home, international negotiations must also make strides to address the priorities, interests and needs of both women and men. At the 20th Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru last year, high-level officials adopted a new work program to address this issue. The decision was put forward by the Least Developed Countries Group (LDC Group) comprising of 48 of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries. This has set a progressive direction for talks on gender equality at the international climate negotiations. Importantly, it also provides further basis for integrating gender equality in the future climate agreement, which is currently at a negotiating stage, expected to be finalised in December this year.

Gender equality and climate change issues are inextricably linked. Women and girls are feeling the brunt of climate change on their lives due to differences in access to and rights over resources, including land and finances, job opportunities, education, health services, and social protection, information and technology. Socially or culturally ascribed roles and responsibilities also limit their participation in decision-making and leadership roles. Gender inequality is further exacerbated by poverty, and therefore women and girls in the LDCs experience double injustice.

Floods and droughts are occurring more frequently due to climate change. Women and girls, as the primary collectors of water and fuel in many parts of the world, have to walk far longer distances and spend more time on these tasks. This also increases their vulnerability to violence, including sexual violence, aside from reducing their time for productive purposes such as going to school, visiting a doctor, or engaging in gainful employment. As the majority of smallholder farmers, women also tend to have fewer resources and opportunities to engage in more climate-resilient agricultural practices, making them less able to recover from crop failures. As many societal and cultural norms and values dictate what behaviours are appropriate, women and girls often lack essential survival skills such as swimming and climbing trees when floods suddenly hit. The evidence for how impacts of climate change are gendered continues to grow.

Far from being passive victims of climate change impacts, women and girls are active leaders, managers and agents of change, possessing an array of knowledge and capabilities necessary for building resilience to climate change. Responding to gendered impacts of climate change and involving women in decision-making and action at all levels are key to ensuring policies and interventions address the interests, contributions, needs, and priorities of both women and men in an equitable manner, without reinforcing, but rather reducing inequalities.

This leads us back to climate change negotiations at the UN. The Lima decision taken last year is a step forward from previous efforts to simply increase women’s numerical participation at the negotiating tables. This is a start to ensure a more gender-responsive climate policy. Countries need to build on this recent gain and ensure they integrate gender equality fully into a future global climate agreement, as this will have an important bearing on what happens on the ground in the many years to come. This not only means agreeing on gender equality as a key guiding principle for all future decision-making processes and actions on climate change, but also including gender considerations with respect to all elements of the agreement, including mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, finance, technology development and transfer, and capacity building, among others.

The ongoing negotiations on the new agreement presents a unique opportunity to turn a so far “gender-blind” global decision-making process on climate change into a global framework that is equitable, engages women and men, and responds to their needs and priorities equally.

Written by: Janna Tenzing, a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Climate Change Group.

Photo: A girl attentively listening to the training on disaster management.