Women’s Voices Need to Be Heard in Climate Action
By Abby Shamray
Editor in Chief
In early twentieth century India, a perfect storm of destructive commercial logging and restrictive, colonial-era forest policies meant that rural villagers who relied on agriculture were suffering even as civil engineering projects boomed around them. Villagers began to organize civil protests beginning in the late 1960s. Their actions went ignored until early 1973 when the protesters resorted to literal tree-hugging, or Chipko, in order to prevent contracted companies from logging. The Chipko movement is considered one of the first environmental protests in the developing world.
One of the most notable aspects of the movement is that the participants were primarily women. In India, women were in charge of agrarian tasks, so they most immediately felt the negative effects of the forest destruction on the land and soil. This remains true today. In the developing world, women account for 45 to 80 percent of food production, according to the UN. In African countries, more than 90 percent of the female labor force works in the agriculture sector.
Climate change has made is so that traditional food sources are no longer dependable. Crops that groups relied on in the past no longer work with an unpredictable, changing climate and more frequent natural disasters. Additionally, the fact that agriculture has become unreliable means that women are losing their primary (and for many, only) source of food and income.
Another example is water in Africa. Many NGOs such as the Water Project and Water Wells for Africa focus on the long distance many need to go to get water, a task that is traditionally relegated to women and girls. 68 percent of the rural population in sub-Saharan Africa spends an hour per trip to collect water, which cuts into education time. Climate change has aggravated this problem by making potable water scarcer in these regions.
Despite women’s active participation in the economy, they are still not well represented in government or rural decision-making bodies. A report from the Rural Development and Management Centre in New Delhi from 2003 discusses women’s participation in agricultural cooperatives, which offer farmers support from selling to banking. Laws regarding land ownership prevent women from fully participating, and restrictions stemming from lack of education and healthcare mean that the time women have to develop their production methods and market their goods is limited.
A UNDP guidebook on including women in community-based adaptation discusses adaptation programs in the developing world. Gender-blind programs exacerbate gender equality, so the UNFCCC has advocated gender mainstreaming which ensures that legislation, policies, and programs at every level present look at gender differences when presenting solutions. A study on women’s role in climate change adaptation in Nepal noted that even if women were not aware of adaptation strategies or did not have technical knowledge, “they certainly know their present situation best and have an urgent list of priorities to secure a livelihood in the face of the new challenge.”
A report from the OECD discussed not just economic empowerment for women who are affected by climate change but also the adaptations women have already implemented that are going largely unnoticed or recognized. Women have vast untapped knowledge of their environment and already partake in mitigation efforts such as reforesting.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change officially declared in 2001 that women are disproportionately affected by climate change, but the CGIAR Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security found that even up to now, gender is not being integrated into solutions. An analysis of COP21 found that women were mentioned as a “vulnerable population,” but that their potential to contribute to solutions went unaddressed, relegating women to the role of victim.
Women were also underrepresented in UNFCCC bodies during COP21, making up a third of Heads of Party delegations and anywhere between 6 or 40 percent of advisory committees. Beyond COP21, early in 2016, the hashtag #AllMalePanels started trending on Twitter, as reported by NPR. The hashtag was used to document panels of male experts, even on topics such as “inclusive global development.” Furthermore, a 2009 survey from the University of Denver showed that 75 percent of the nonprofit sector in the U.S. is made up of women, but women only head 14 percent of the global NGOs. Lindsay Coates, of InterAction, an organization that runs one of the largest annual forums for global nonprofits, told NPR, “We’ve had instances where we invited a more junior female person from a large, famous international institution that I can’t name — and her boss bumped her off and [took her place].”
Stacey Young, senior learning advisor for USAID’s Policy, Planning, and Learning Bureau, told NPR that majority male panels and leadership have impacts on policymaking. At one panel on global agriculture, the panelists insisted on referring to farmers as men and using the pronoun “he,” although it is widely known that the majority of food producers in the developing world are women. Young stated that doing so impedes discussion on issues that impact rural women such as childcare and healthcare. The practice of ignoring the fact that women make up a large part of the agrarian workforce encourages genderblind community-based solutions and policies.
Down the line, from those affected by climate change to those trying to affect change, women’s voices are discounted. Recognizing that women can make valuable contributions in climate action is something that has to happen at all levels. Women make up 50 percent of the population and climate change has a proven greater negative effect on their livelihoods. Therefore, it is crucial that women have roles on rural decision-making bodies and international organizations. Demanding equality and justice means little without substantial effort at every level.