Climate change

Gender and climate change

The case for gender equality in climate change policy is shifting towards a more rights based approach.

Women wearing the masks of G8 leaders join climate change protest in Dhaka. Photo: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Edited by Alan Stanley
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The way in which climate changes affect people is highly dependent on their position in society and, therefore, also on their gender.  The Sustainable Development Goals recognise this link -between global social inequality, gender inequality and climate change - and there is growing recognition that they share common roots and, therefore, solutions. As a result the momentum for mainstreaming gender equality in climate change policy, research and practice has been growing for some time. But there has been a noticeable shift in emphasis over time which is resulting in some interesting tensions.

The case for gender equality in the climate change context (and beyond) is being built along a continuum from a more instrumentalist to more rights based approach. Instrumentalism, on the one hand, promotes gender equality for the sake of an ulterior purpose, such as social, financial, or environmental benefits. It describes women and girls as an “untapped resource” in the global response to climate change. The rights based approach, on the other hand, describes instrumentalism as exploitative and insists on the importance of pursuing women’s rights and gender equality as a goal in its own right - no matter the cost or co-benefits of doing so. Feminist advocates for gender and climate justice call for deeper more fundamental changes to the development model, and indeed society more broadly, that the instrumentalist approach is based on. 

This Guide explores some of these ongoing debates and highlights some key resources for those of you that might wish to delve a bit deeper into the topic. In looks at women’s leadership and empowerment - a key element of bringing gender equality into the global response to climate change - and examines progress on gender in climate policy and finance mechanisms. But let’s start by looking at how the discourse on gender has influenced responses to climate change impacts.

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Agnes Otzelberger 

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Beyond the “vulnerable and the virtuous”

Climate vulnerability and risk depend not only on how serious a climate hazard is (drought, flood etc.) but very strongly on the livelihood assets, social networks, skills, knowledge, and position in society, of the people affected by that hazard.  As a result the levels of hardship resulting from climate change can be highly variable across different populations, and gender inequality is one key factor in this - alongside other inequalities on the basis of ethnicity, age, race, caste, religion, etc.

In recent years, a narrative has emerged that “women are more vulnerable to climate change than men”. This builds on the growing evidence of how discrimination against women in areas such as law, social rules and behaviours and the prevailing levels of gender-based violence have deep repercussions for women’s and girl’s lives in the face of climatic shifts and disasters. It's a compelling narrative that has certainly led to the targeting of women as a strategy to achieve change, often with positive results for the women involved. 

The risk behind these statements, however, has been the portrayal of women as one homogenous group – “vulnerable and virtuous” at once, as Seema Arora-Jonsson put it. By failing to involve men and boys, these strategies have not necessarily addressed the root causes of inequality and have frequently built on generalised stereotypes. For example, assumptions that women generally are disempowered, or that they have particularly well-meaning attitudes toward family, community and the environment.

Gender Inclusive Research: Why and How

Three reasons why agricultural research should be gender inclusive, and three ways to do it. A six-minute animation created by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in collaboration with ICESI University (Colombia).

Addressing the underlying social power relations and structures that produce inequality requires not only working with women but also with men, not just empowering women and girls in isolation but also working with people in powerful positions to change laws and challenge dominant social norms. In other words it requires addressing attitudes and behaviours across all of society. Let's take as an example the disproportionate role played by women in providing unpaid care work. If women’s empowerment to address climate change only means increasing their participation in the public domain and formal economy, without rethinking the distribution and recognising the value of unpaid care work, 'women’s empowerment' can quickly become 'overburdening women'.

Most available case study evidence on gender and climate change deals with these 'classic' gender analysis issues in more or less detail. But this idea of a 'gender-transformative approach' is only beginning to take hold specifically in climate change programming - which brings with it a range of new aspects and practices whose gender dimensions are not yet well understood. Only a few tools and studies to date have been designed specifically to address these challenging new aspects of climate change but very good examples such as the Pacific Gender and Climate Change toolkit and Gender and inclusion toolbox show progress is being made in this area. 

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Progress on gender in climate change policies

So as the discourse on gender and climate change moves forward how is this translating into policy changes?

The short answer is that it is a very mixed picture. The international climate change policy and financing architecture, under the overarching frame work of the UNFCCC, is vast, complex and constantly shifting as new agreements and mechanisms come into being, or existing ones are amended.

Like all negotiation items in the UNFCCC, gender and other social questions often fall victim to trade-offs in the countdown toward a universal UN agreement so staying on top of negotiations is a time-intensive race against time. Several organisations have dedicated staff focusing entirely on this policy process and its related mechanisms, and produce useful guidance as a result - see for example the regular updates by the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO).

The good news, though, is that persistent lobbying by gender and climate change advocates has led to some positive shifts in global climate change policy and financing mechanisms in recent years. After being sidelined for many years,  gender equality is now a standing agenda item in the UNFCCC, receiving dedicated airtime in each round of negotiations.

In March 2015, the Green Climate Fund - the most significant global effort to pool and disburse finance for action on climate change - was the first to adopt a gender policy and action plan prior to initiating spending. This is remarkable, given that all other global climate financing institutions to date had to ‘retrofit’ their setup and funding criteria and process to reflect gender principles. 

Things are also progressing at national levels where, especially in low and middle income countries, the number of policies and action plans on gender and climate change is growing. IUCD’s Gender & Climate Change Action Plan (ccGAP) initiative is one critical effort to reduce the 'implementation gap' between ambitious policies on the one hand and often poor real outcomes on the other, and their 2013 report features the action plans developed by eleven countries, from Haiti to Nepal.

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