Opinion: Let's get climate action into traction with gender equality

Flood-affected women are seen standing in chest-deep water in front of their house in Jamalpur, Bangladesh. Photo by: REUTERS / Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Climate change is already altering the face of our planet. Research shows that we need to put all our efforts over the coming decade to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and mitigate the catastrophic risks posed by increased droughts, floods, and extreme weather events. But our actions will not be effective if they do not include measures to ensure social justice, equality, and a gender perspective. So, how do we integrate gender equality in climate change actions?  

The impact of climate change affects women and girls disproportionately due to existing gender inequalities. It also threatens to undermine socio-economic gains made over previous decades. With limited or no access to land and other resources including finance, technology, and information, women and girls suffer more in the aftermath of natural disasters and bear increased burdens in domestic and care work.

Women and girls have also seen their water collection time increased, and firewood and fodder collection efforts thwarted in the face of droughts, floods, and deforestation, occupying a significant portion of their time that could have been used for their education or leisure. This is not only theory. For example, women and children accounted for more than 96% of those impacted by the flash floods in the Solomon Islands in 2014, and in Myanmar, women accounted for 61% of fatalities caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

Women and girls also remain marginalized in decision-making spheres — from the community level to parliaments to international climate negotiations. Global climate finance for mitigation and adaptation programs remain out of reach for women and girls because of their lack of knowledge and capacity to tap into these resources.

Despite these challenges, women and girls play a critical role in key climate-related sectors. They have developed adaptation and resilience-building strategies and mitigation techniques, such as driving the demand for renewable energy at the household and community levels for lighting, cooking and productive use solutions that the international community must now support. Women are holders of traditional farming methods, first responders in crisis situations, founders of cooperatives, entrepreneurs of green energy, scientists and inventors, and decision-makers with respect to the use of natural resources.

Women comprise an average of 43% of the agricultural workforce in developing countries and manage 90% of all household water and fuel-wood needs in Africa. Some studies have shown that if women were afforded equal access to productive resources as men, their agricultural outputs would exceed that of men. It is therefore imperative to embrace and scale-up the initiatives of 51% of the world’s population.

In recent times, women and girls have used their knowledge and experience to lead in mitigation efforts — from developing apps to track and reduce the carbon emitted as a result of individual consumption, to reducing food waste by connecting neighbors, cafes, and local shops to share leftover and unsold food. Young women scientists, like South-African teenager Kiara Nirghin, are making a difference in the fight against climate change. They are building on the legacies of women and girls such as Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, who empowered communities to manage their natural resources in a sustainable way.

At the same time, UNDP and UN Women have been collaborating to advance gender equality and women’s leadership on climate change. For example, in Ecuador, the two U.N. agencies have teamed up with the government to support the inclusion of gender in the country’s climate action plans. UNDP and UN Women have also collaborated globally to ensure that gender remains a key factor when world leaders make critical decisions on climate change.

If policies and projects take into account women’s particular roles, needs, and contributions to climate action and support women’s empowerment, there will be a greater possibility to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We must continue to engage women and women’s organizations, learning from their experiences on the ground to build the evidence for good practices and help replicate more inclusive climate actions.

The U.N. secretary-general’s Climate Action Summit in New York on Sept. 23, 2019, is a unique opportunity to elevate at the highest level, the need for substantive participation of women and girls in efforts against climate change.

At the summit, there will be several initiatives put forth to address climate change, including one focusing on gender equality. The initiative recognizes the differential impact of climate change on women and girls, and seeks support for their leadership as a way to make climate actions more effective. It calls for the rights, differentiated needs and contributions of women and girls to be integrated into all actions, including those related to climate finance, energy, industry, and infrastructure. It promotes support for women and girls in developing innovative tools and participating in mitigation and adaptation efforts, and calls for accountability by tracking and reporting progress towards achieving these goals.

For climate action to get more traction and be effective, we need a critical mass of governments and other stakeholders to sign on to the Climate Action Summit’s gender-specific initiative. The world cannot afford to keep limiting the potential of women and girls in shaping climate actions, as all the evidence points towards the benefits of their involvement.

There is already interest by U.N. member states, as shown in the increased integration of gender considerations in their national climate plans, but a broader movement is needed. We need multi-stakeholder partnerships and engage a critical mass of supporters – governments, U.N. entities, financial mechanisms, and civil society organizations to support the gender-specific initiative of the SG’s Climate Action Summit.

The time for gender-responsive climate action is now.

About the authors

  • Ded anita square fromapflickr

    Anita Bhatia

    Anita Bhatia is assistant secretary-general of the United Nations and deputy executive director for Resource Management, Sustainability and Partnerships at UN Women. Ms. Bhatia has had a distinguished career at The World Bank Group, serving in various senior leadership and management positions, both at headquarters and in the field. She brings extensive experience in the area of strategic partnerships, resource mobilization, and management.
  • Undp

    Ulrika Modéer

    Ms. Ulrika Modéer began her role as UNDP's assistant administrator and director of the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy in August 2018. In this role she leads the organization in nurturing and growing key relationships with member states and new and emerging partners. She steers UNDP's communications and advocacy, as it works to realize the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals. She previously served as Sweden's state secretary for international development cooperation and climate and has been instrumental in reshaping the country's international development cooperation to support the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.