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Climate Change and Women Across Three Continents

PARIS, Dec 12 2015 (IPS) - The link between women in climate change is a cross-cutting issue that deserves greater recognition at climate negotiations. It is pervasive, touching everything; from health and agriculture to sanitation and education.

Women from developing countries witness the nexus between climate change and gender issues on a first-hand basis. They are oftentimes highly dependent on the land and water resources for survival and are left in insecure positions. Climate change is not just an environmental issue, but links to social justice, equity, and human rights, all of which have gender elements.

A female perspective is critical to the success of the 2015 Climate Conference (COP21), which strives to find a global agreement to tackle climate change. In order for it to be effective, it must integrate gender equality, particularly women’s empowerment and gender responsiveness to the vulnerability of rural women.

During the back-and-forth iterations of the climate agreement’s draft, of which several versions were published in the last two weeks, gender was treated as an accessory element that could be removed and bargained with, and all but a handful of parties ignored it. They are wrong.

Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa are three of the most climate vulnerable continents in the world and although they contribute the least to climate change, the women in their countries endure the brunt of its severe impact.

Millions of people in Asia are extremely vulnerable to climate change, especially women because of their traditional, gender-prescribed roles. In many rural areas the mobility of women is very limited, as women working outdoors is often frowned upon due to conservative social perceptions. So while men from climate change-affected areas often migrate to cities and less climate vulnerable regions in search of work, women are left to take care of the homes and children. This confinement to houses translates to economic dependence and lack of access to information such as early warning, which contributes to increasing women’s vulnerability.

Women in Asia usually have more climate sensitive tasks, such as fetching water and preparing food, which increases their vulnerability in the context of climate change. The UN Development Program (UNDP) field research has shown that fetching water involves women and girls commuting over long distances. With the increasing frequency and intensity of floods, women regularly have to navigate through waterlogged areas for fetching water and cooking, which exposes them to the risks of drowning, snakebites, and skin diseases.

Halfway around the globe, women face similar climate-related issues. Caribbean households are largely matriarchal and women find themselves at the frontline of the need for climate adaptation and mitigation.

Women have the prime responsibility of taking care of everyone in the home and are affected by food security and water scarcity. Rural women are particularly vulnerable, especially smallholder producers, marginalised farmers, and agricultural workers living in rural areas.

Whether the food or water shortages are due to the increased amount and intensity of hurricanes or drought, their chances of living decent lives are not high and aren’t getting better. Understanding this point of view is important for successful formulation and execution of climate adaptation strategies.

According to Mildred Crawford, President of the Jamaica Network of Rural Women Producers,” Agriculture needs more visibility in the negotiations. Women are actors in the food chain and need finance to assist small farmers to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Women groups are already organised; so incentives can be given to them to control carbon from waste in their community.”

The Caribbean is in its worst drought in the past five years. According to Mary Robinson, former Prime Minister of Ireland, and also former head of t UN’s High Commission on Human Rights, the climate draft needs to have a sharper gender focus in order to ensure that women have greater access to climate finance, renewable technologies and adaptation capacity. Indeed, climate campaigning should not be narrowed to emissions reductions, carbon trading and transfer of technology, but it should strive to go beyond.

Along with these, it should take note of the fact that most farmers in developing countries are women and therefore adaptation applies strongly to them. Gender applies across the board, it is not something to be used conveniently.
Women from developing countries need to be empowered to play major roles in the climate change fight as they stand to lose so much.

Kalyani Raj, member in charge of All India Women’s Conference, argues that it is crucial to give vulnerable women a voice and include them in policy planning.

“A lot of women have developed micro-level adaptation approaches, indigenous solutions and traditional knowledge that are not being replicated at the macro level,” she said. “So policies should be focused on upscaling these instead of proposing one-size-fits-all measures for climate change adaptation.”

In Africa, the climate change impact on gender issues is mainly linked to agriculture, food security and natural disasters. According to the 2011 Economic Brief of the African Development Bank (AFDB), out of Africa’s 53 countries, women represent 40 percent or more of the agricultural workforce in 46 of them. This sector is characterised as vulnerable because generally it does not comprise formal sector jobs with contracts and income security.

“The poor are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and the majority of the 1.5 billion people living on $1 a day or less are women,” pointed out UNFPA in the 2009 State of World Population report. Furthermore, in a sample of 141 countries over the period 1981–2002, it was found that gender differences in deaths from natural disasters are directly linked to women’s economic and social rights. In inequitable societies, more women than men die from disaster.

As young women from these three vulnerable continents, we are calling for proper representation of women in the climate agreement. The cry of the rural woman is a reality that we must all face. However, we must recognise that women are not just victims, we are powerful agents for change. Therefore, women need to be included in the decision-making processes and allowed to contribute their unique expertise and knowledge to adapt to climate change, because any climate change intervention that excludes women’s perspective and any policy that is gender blind, is destined to fail.


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juan salvador gaviota