Empowering Women Could Reduce Climate Change

The UN's new Gender Action Plan focuses on women achieving equal representation in government across the world by addressing climate change issues.

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Jan 4 2018, 6:30pm

Photo via Pixabay

Didja Djibrillah sits alone in a booth at COP23, the annual Conference of the Parties (COP23), a yearly meeting for member states of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to address global progress in fighting climate change. A video plays, to an empty room, about the effects of climate change on her nomadic community. “Each day begins at 5 am to grind couscous in 50-degree [Celsius] heat,” she explains to VICE Impact. There are no grocery stores, and it’s the women’s role to search for food and water. Climate change makes their journeys longer.

The United Nations’ new Gender Action Plan (GAP), finalized by UNFCCC member states at COP23, aims to recognize the adverse effects of climate change on women, like Didja. It also recognizes they’re key to their communities’ long-and-short-term survival, and aims to ensure disenfranchised women can help spearhead solutions - both at global policy making and local grassroots levels. Based on current trends, women won’t have equal representation in government until 2134. In the UNFCCC, comprised of 197 different nations, gender equality will not be reached until 2040 - and that number is declining.

Yannick Glemarec, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director for Policy and Programme for UN Women, tells VICE Impact, “What is becoming extremely powerful is the recognition that women are not only a vulnerable group, but they’re also agents of change. We have basically one of the most powerful solutions to address climate change at scale.”

The GAP also aims to ensure more women are sent to the COP as part of each countries national delegations and also to serve in positions of leadership in bodies of the Convention. The latter may include sitting on the board of the Green Climate Fund, a massive funding mechanism in charge of allocating billions in sustainable development funding and the power to transform the lives of millions of severely marginalized women.

What is becoming extremely powerful is the recognition that women are not only a vulnerable group, but they’re also agents of change.

What makes this GAP different is it gives women’s organizations an opportunity to make sure UNFCCC decisions are implemented through it’s five key themes which, unlike previous years, will be measured and tracked by women’s groups at COP25 in 2019.


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These themes are designed to ensure grassroots women and girls are key decision-makers both globally and locally; to improve gender-responsive climate policy at the national level; to gain a greater understanding of how women are affected by climate change; and to examine how climate finance is designed and effectively responds to women’s needs.

“One of the biggest and most important aspects of this Gender Action Plan for us— and for those pushing for it—is that we have several mandates under the process already, which recognize not only that women must be equally represented at the negotiating table, but that all climate finance should take gender equality into account and how it’s designed and implemented,” Bridget Burns, Co-Director for Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), tells VICE Impact.

“We moved gender equality, and women empowerment from the social and environmental sector category, to the most cost effective measures to address climate change at scale,” Glemarec says, pointing out why the GAP is so special.

The GAP allows groups (like WGC, GenderCC, WEDO , UN WOMEN and other civil society organizations working towards gender equality) to track the budgets of massive finance mechanisms - responsible for financing an estimated USD $410 billion of public and private sector funds for climate change. Thus, they can hold countries accountable to gender equality, while also ensuring women receive equal access to sustainable development funds.

"We moved gender equality, and women empowerment from the social and environmental sector category, to the most cost effective measures to address climate change at scale."

“A lot of money and resources are being diverted towards [finance mechanisms] to upscale climate activities,” Aisha Khan, who unlocks climate finance opportunities for grassroots women, tells VICE Impact. “It is important to hold finance mechanisms accountable because without accountability we cannot ensure that the resources are being utilized effectively for the purpose of addressing issues in a gender sensitive manner.”

Didja’s community roams the Sahelian region of Chad— an area already ravished by climate change. They migrate across this vast desert, with their cows, using stars for navigation. “We use the movement of our animals to determine whether there will be enough rainfall next season,” Didja explains. “If the cattle move from east to west, it means this year we will not have enough water.”

This knowledge of local women, on the ground, is critical for fighting climate change. Policy-makers, sitting in UNFCCC negotiating rooms, can’t know these details. That’s why empowering the on-the-ground voices and increasing their leadership is so important.

While men in Didja’s community claimed to be what she says are “masters of the bush,” a recent study by her NGO, Association des Femmes Peules et Peuples Autochtonne, proves them wrong. She explains women are actually the ones who know where food, water, and medicinal herbs are.“The study was carried out in the south of Chad precisely where I come from,” says Didja. “[It] showed that women are the ones who have a mastery of the bush, while the men previously argued it was them.”

Didja Djibrillah. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Didja made sure to explain some of the barriers women in Chad face to becoming leaders and securing positions in high levels of policy making. “They have to get married between the ages of eleven and thirteen," she said. "By the time she is twenty, she can have six or seven children. Girls are for marriage and for the kitchen, their job is not going to school.”

According to the UN, women are holders of important ecological knowledge, the world over - particularly in remote and rural areas. So it’s important to ensure these women have the power to share their knowledge with policy-makers, and make decisions at national, international and grassroots levels.

At this year's COP, one in four delegates from Chad was a woman. An increase from zero in 2016, respectively.

Lisa Göldner, on the International Secretariat team of GenderCC – Women for Climate Justice, explains women are actively pushed out by their own governments, who send men instead of women, when issues are important. “The number of women in the national delegations peaked at COP20 in Lima, but drastically decreased at COP21 in Paris,” she says. “I see the reason for the decline in women's participation therein that as climate change has increased, in importance in world politics, and is more and more becoming a ‘hard’ political issue, the number of women sent by national governments to negotiate on the issue decreases.”

“Climate change has been affecting women in our community for a very long time, its not today that the impact of climate is felt. We have known about climate change for a very long time.”

Burns explained that the UNFCCC’s decisions are voluntary and there is no specific target, just an open-ended and undefined goal of gender balance. “Gender balance is up to the definition of any party,” Burns says “The whole process is weak in terms of compliance and accountability, to be honest.”

When there no specific targets to reach, countries can just ignore gender-related decisions.
“When it comes down to it - there are still parties that will come to the negotiations with 30 men and 2 women,” she says.“There's no way to challenge that other than to do advocacy around it.”

“Climate change has been affecting women in our community for a very long time, its not today that the impact of climate is felt,” says Didja. “We have known about climate change for a very long time.”

Perhaps this time - with new accountability measures provided by the GAP - things can be different.