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Gender Lens Is Needed to Fully Understand Climate Crisis, Experts Say

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Gender Lens Is Needed to Fully Understand Climate Crisis, Experts Say
On May 17, 2019, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres visits a market in Port Vila, Vanuatu, that is part of the U.N. Women project Markets for Change. (U.N. Photo / Mark Garten)

Although the effects of climate change are a threat to everyone, many experts say the ramifications will not be felt equally, with a warming planet exposing and exacerbating the global gender gap.

Global leaders joined the virtual panel “Climate and Security: Advancing a Gender Lens” on June 12 hosted by the Georgetown University for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) to discuss a framework that looks at how gender, climate and security are inextricably linked.

The discussion coincided with the release of two reports: “Gender, Climate and Security: Sustaining Inclusive Peace on the Frontlines of Climate Change” by several U.N. agencies, as well as “Women Building Resilient Cities in the Context of Climate Change: Lessons from Sierra Leone” by GIWPS.

Panelists, including the former president of Ireland and current foreign affairs minister of Finland, argued that policymakers need to study and address the connections between gender, climate and security if they want to effectively respond to the range of crises that the planet faces, such as the increased competition and conflict over scarce resources as climate changes triggers more extreme weather patterns around the world.

On May 17, 2019, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres visits a market in Port Vila, Vanuatu, that is part of the U.N. Women project Markets for Change.
(U.N. Photo / Mark Garten)

Climate Change Disproportionately Affects Women

Climate change has fueled heatwaves, fiercer storms, rising seas, prolonged droughts and floods that have impacted the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the world.

Women often bear the brunt of these effects. Economically, women are automatically at a disadvantage because they disproportionately make up the world’s poor. They are also less likely to be educated and represented in government or leadership positions.

They face greater health and safety risks when water and sanitation systems become compromised, and they take on increased domestic work when resources dwindle. In many societies, cultural norms, patriarchal attitudes and childcare responsibilities prevent women from migrating or working when a disaster hits. This is likely to put an added burden on women, who have to travel longer to get drinking water and wood for fuel. And in times of conflict, women are often subject to sexual violence and other abuses.

But establishing a direct correlation between environmental degradation and gender inequality has not always been straightforward.

“We’ve lacked the evidence base,” said Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and current chair of the Elders, an organization of prominent global leaders. “We’ve lacked the good practice, the stories, the noting of the role women play in all kinds of ways and very often it’s just not recorded.”

But recent data-driven studies have confirmed what many experts have known for years: Women are more vulnerable to the political, social and economic effects of climate change than their male counterparts.

Robinson herself has spent years working to integrate gender into the climate discussion. She said she wants gender to become a “strong issue” that will lead to specific action plan.

Climate change risks exacerbating gender inequalities, according to the panelists. To combat this problem, Robinson said those at the top of the pyramid must listen to the grassroots and indigenous women who are “on the frontlines” of the crisis.

Her recommendation? Create a sustained way to address these issues. Talk about them over and over again, year after year. Don’t let the conversation wither.

Women work on a tea farm in Vietnam. When droughts strike, men are able to migrate to find work elsewhere with higher wages, while women are not able to relocate because of family caretaking commitments.
(Photo: Quang Nguyen vinh from Pixabay )

Women Leadership Is Key

U.N. Security Council Resolution 2242 has recognized climate change as a threat to security for women and girls. It says women are marginalized politically and economically, resulting in access to fewer resources to cope with climate-related disasters.

However, despite the challenges, women are on the frontlines of the battle against climate change. This includes working to build resilient cities that are able to prepare for disasters and better recover from them.

A report by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security detailed how women in Sierra Leone are leading this charge, using both formal representation in local governments and informal community-based organizations.

In formal settings, communities are controlled by local government bodies that provide services such as water or waste management and land use.

However, in areas where local government is less reliable — coined as informal settlements by the report — women can help build resilience by designing community-based early-warning systems and forming cooperatives.

Authors of the study issued five recommendations for policymakers to help empower women:

  • Invest in community-based organizations
  • Promote collaboration between formal and informal government bodies
  • Design climate-responsive projects that are also gender-responsive
  • Amplify voices and actions of women implementing change in the community
  • Gather gender-responsive data within informal settlements

Combining these initiatives, the report says, will help to strengthen peace, human rights and development, by ensuring that gender is incorporated into the agendas of government leaders.

Looking at Women as Leaders, Not Victims

Despite women being at the forefront of such efforts, the panelists on the Georgetown Institute forum pointed out that most studies only refer to women’s vulnerabilities or societal disposition.

“[We] wanted to see women not as weak but as actors,” said Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s minister for foreign affairs, during the panel.

Numerous studies have shown that the participation of women in peace processes increases the chances of achieving a sustainable peace.

Haavisto also pointed out that war-torn areas often use the environment as a weapon. In Afghanistan, for example, he noted that groups cut off the water supply to punish or weaken communities.

Acts of violence such as the burning industrial sites not only endanger the environment, but they also affect air and water quality, directly impacting people’s health and livelihoods.

“We had to fight our way to address the real environmental concerns,” Haavisto said. Doing this means “bringing women to the male-dominated tables.”

While it’s crucial to have women as part of the peace processes, gender experts say communities must also incorporate women at the grassroots level.

“Inclusivity is a must, I say, because you don’t impact the lives of a million-plus people top down,” said Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, mayor of Freetown in Sierra Leone. “It doesn’t work because … you can’t force change and have anything that’s sustained.”

Aki-Sawyerr, whose experience is cited in the Georgetown Institute report, became the first woman elected as mayor of Freetown in 40 years.

As the city has dealt with rapid urbanization in recent years due to booming population growth, Aki-Sawyerr has embraced a data-driven and participatory approach to governance — setting and measuring clear environmental targets and holding regular consultations with city residents.

She said governments can’t know what problems to address if they don’t listen to the concerns of the people. Just as important is formulating specific policy targets.

“It’s not just who you speak to, but what your targets are and how they systematically bring in everyone,” Aki-Sawyerr said.

By bringing women into the conversations — as agents of change, not as victims — countries can begin to address the disproportionate impact climate change has on them, and the interconnected nature of gender inequality on the whole of society.

“If you’re not inclusive,” Aki-Sawyerr said, “you can’t win.”

Cami Mondeaux is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.