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Q&A: “Incomprehensible” Absence of Women in Global Environment Policy

Julio Godoy interviews WEDO activist SANDRA AKPÉNE FREITAS

BONN, Aug 5 2010 (IPS) - There is a vacuum in the various texts that currently regulate global policy against climate change: specific mention of the effects of global warming on women and of the role women can play in protecting the environment.

Sandra Akpéne Freitas Credit: Courtesy of WEDO

Sandra Akpéne Freitas Credit: Courtesy of WEDO

That glaring gap, as well as the failure to refer to the impact on human health, was highlighted by activists during the third round of United Nations climate change negotiations in Bonn this week, designed to prepare for the Nov. 29-Dec. 10 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico.

The lack of references to the role that women can play in global and local policy on climate change “is incomprehensible,” especially given the number of studies stressing that they should play a central role, Sandra Akpéne Freitas, one of the activists who has spoken out most loudly against the lack of a gender perspective during the talks in Bonn, told IPS in this interview.

Freitas is one of the two delegates representing the New York-based Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) at this week’s meeting in this German city.

Besides her work with WEDO, Freitas forms part of the Global Gender and Climate Alliance (GGCA), which brings together more than 35 U.N. agencies and NGOs. She is also executive director of Actions en Faveur de l’Homme et de la Nature (AFHON – Actions in Favour of Humanity and Nature), an NGO working on climate change adaptation in the West African nation of Togo, her home country.

Q: How do you explain the lack of a specific reference to women in the U.N. texts on climate change? A: It is incomprehensible, given that so many other texts point to the effects of climate change and underdevelopment on women, and that the natural role played by women in communities puts them in a privileged position when it comes to protecting the environment.

Q: What texts are you referring to? A: U.N. Human Rights Council Resolution 10/4 on “human rights and climate change” states that the adverse effects caused by global warming will be more heavily felt by vulnerable populations, such as women. The 2007-2008 Human Development Report also refers to this.

In addition, the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) repeatedly refer to the vulnerability of women in particular.

All of these texts note that in developing countries, simply being a woman means being poor and more vulnerable to disasters brought on by climate change. This particular vulnerability of women implies numerous forms of injustice that we suffer in education, health and social policies in general.

Q: Apart from that vulnerability, why do you see women in developing countries as essential to climate change mitigation and adaptation? A: Women offer a huge potential as actors in local environmental policy. It is women who administer water in the local communities, who are in charge of the generation and preservation of energy, and who exploit and care for bush and jungle areas.

All of these aspects — water, energy, forest management — are simultaneously threatened by climate change, and their preservation and administration are essential to combat the phenomenon.

At the same time, in the case of illnesses caused or exacerbated by climate change, like diarrhea or fever, it is women who take care of the sick.

Q: So in that sense, women are also a key subject of development policy overall? A: Of course. Practically all of the Millennium Development Goals (the eight MDGs — anti-poverty and development targets adopted by the international community in 2000) refer in one way or another to questions that affect women: education, health, maternity, poverty, infant mortality…and in all of these aspects, women are present, suffering the negative consequences or providing solutions.

Q: In that case, what importance does the specific recognition of the role of women in global environmental policy have? A: Officially, women’s organisations do not take part in the international debates on climate change. With formal recognition, that situation would change.

But more important is the fact that this absence of participation by women acts in detriment of their ability to help fight climate change, while recognition of the role played by women would support their formal training, as well as their possibilities of contributing solutions to climate problems.

Q: What do WEDO and other civil society organisations working for the rights of women propose, in specific terms? A: We have drafted amendments to the texts, which would incorporate specific references to the role of women. We have also set forth many proposals, based on a number of resolutions from international meetings and conventions.

Furthermore, we recommend that specific measures on training for women should be given priority at the national and international levels in the framework of climate change policy, in order to strengthen the capacities that women already have with respect to the sustainable use and conservation of natural resources like water, energy sources, and forests.

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