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We need to go beyond ‘just add women and stir’


How do we move towards more people-centred, gender-aware climate change policies and processes?

This is a guest post from Alyson Brody, manager of BRIDGE,  a gender and development information programme based at the Institute of Development Studies.  BRIDGE has been established for 20 years and its role is to bridge the gap between development research, policy and practice, by producing accessible materials on a range of issues that include gender and climate change. It has recently launched a new publication: ‘Cutting Edge Pack on Gender and Climate Change’

Climate change is increasingly recognised as a global crisis, but responses to it have so far been overly focused on scientific and economic solutions, rather than on the significant human and gender dimensions.

How then do we move towards more people-centred, gender-aware climate change policies and processes? How do we not only respond to the different needs and concerns of women and men and ensure they have an equal voice in decision-making, but also address and challenge the socially ingrained gender inequalities that mean women are more likely to lose out than men in the face of climate change?

A two-year programme (2010 /11) led by BRIDGE set out to address these questions.

Working collaboratively with a core advisory group from research, policy and activism and drawing on the inputs of a global community of practice key gaps, we identified key concerns and priorities and gathered numerous examples of good practice to shift the focus from problems to solutions.

The result is the latest Cutting Edge Pack from BRIDGE, which was published at the end of 2011.

While the pack acknowledges steps forward in policy and research around gender and climate change, it argues for the need to go beyond a tokenistic ‘add women and stir’ approach, and to engage with the complex gender dimensions of climate change.

Many of these are not new – rather climate change is magnifying existing forms of gender inequality and poverty, making them an ever more urgent priority.  As we point out in the Pack, these inequalities are being compounded by climate change policies and processes that exclude and marginalise women.

The pack has been distributed in hard copy to around 2000 organisations (including NGOs, government offices and research institutions), particularly in the developing South, and is available to download for free here.

 Some key gender dimensions of climate change

Women and men do not experience climate change equally.

In many developing countries economic constraints and cultural norms that restrict women’s access to paid employment mean that their livelihoods are particularly dependent on climate-sensitive sectors, such as subsistence agriculture or water collection.

Yet gender inequalities in the distribution of assets and opportunities mean their choices are severely constrained in the face of climate change. For example, restrictions around land ownership for rural women mean they may not have access to productive land to farm, and lack of financial capital means they cannot easily diversify their livelihoods.

The fact that women and girls are often responsible for most of the unpaid care tasks around the household also means their lives are directly affected by the changes brought about by climate change. They often have to walk further to find increasingly scarce food, fuel and water, as well as caring for family members who are susceptible to the health risks linked to climate change.

As a result, women and girls find themselves with less time for education, income-generating activities or participation in community decision-making processes, further entrenching unequal gender relations.

Men are also negatively affected by climate change, particularly when they are poor.

For example, men may experience deep anxiety and stress when their rural livelihoods are undermined as a result of climate change and they are no longer able to fulfil their socially expected roles as providers.

Research also indicates that men may feel pressured into taking ‘heroic’ actions, which places them at a higher risk than women and children. For example, after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in October 2000, a higher proportion of men than women were killed due to risk-taking behaviour.

Climate change policy does not take enough account of gender

Many climate change policies and processes overlook the gender dimensions of climate change or consider them irrelevant. For example the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the overarching international framework for addressing climate change, yet makes no reference to gender at any point.

Most of these policies are market-based, aimed at mitigation and low carbon development, providing economic incentives for the cutting of emissions or preservation of forests.

For example REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) enables industrialised countries to ‘offset’ their carbon emissions by paying governments for the conservation of forests, often in the developing South, to promote climate mitigation by preserving carbon stored in trees.

This commercialisation of previously free natural resources has been shown to lead to the further exclusion of poor and landless people, often women, who depend on products from the forests for their livelihoods but rarely benefit from the economic incentives.

What needs to change?

Climate change policies and processes will be neither effective nor fair unless they become more gender aware. This means recognising that development actors are women as well as men, that they are constrained in different and often unequal ways, and that they may consequently have differing – and sometimes conflicting – needs and priorities.

Greater gender awareness also means recognising that women have the right to be included in climate change-related decisions and to benefit from them equally.

Simply being aware of gender inequalities is not enough.

Climate change responses have the potential to challenge existing gender power imbalances and, by doing so, can contribute to the realisation of greater gender equality and women’s rights – they can play a transformative role. There are unique opportunities for the newly emerging climate change-focused institutions and processes to take a gender-aware approach that contributes to gender and social transformation.

Much can be learned from initiatives that are emerging at all levels.

In addition to the vital lobbying work of national, regional and global organisations and networks at the policy level, many local organisations are already responding to women’s and men’s actual needs and promoting gender-aware, transformative approaches.

For example, one of the case studies in the pack focuses on FUNDAEXPRESIÓN, a Columbian organisation that is part of a network which raises awareness of global climate change policies and their gender implications. Through the network FUNDAEXPRESIÓN has played an important role in empowering local women and men to challenge them and engage in sustainable, locally relevant climate adaptation and mitigation approaches

It is now imperative to create stronger links between global policy and these local level realities and innovations to ensure that policies are informed by the voices of the women and men who deal with the consequences of climate change every day.

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