UN Photo: Tim McKulka
For several years, climate change was understood as an issue surrounding the ecological space and a scientific perspective dominated the discourse. Both a gender lens and the gendered impact of climate change have been ignored. However, research (FAO 2011, Cohen and Young 2007; Quisumbing, Kumar, and Bassett 2008; Sabarwal, Sinha, and Buvinic 2010) overwhelmingly suggests that climate change impacts the lives of men and women differently and women are more severely affected.
Pressurized by social, financial, and legal disparities, women face alarming constraints to climate change adaptation. Women from developing countries and indigenous backgrounds are among the first victims of climate change owing to their work involving collection of fodder, fuel wood, water, and other agricultural roles. Their access to land is limited due to several demanding legal procedures and this is exacerbated by deep-rooted stereotypes and social practices permeating all levels of society. Their inability to make safe investments in resources for productive purposes stems from comparatively lower levels of income and lower access to formal credit and information channels. In agriculture, the imbalances between the responsibility of food production, the lack of access to land, technology and credit along with the direct climatic impacts places women in a vulnerable position. Women constitute two-thirds of the illiterate population in the world and naturally, women’s access to education and training regarding climate change adaptation is quite limited. With increasing annual temperatures, research has shown that women suffer a higher risk of heat-related health impacts, contributing to their biologic vulnerability. They also suffer relatively higher deaths, decreased life expectancy and a higher risk of physical and sexual violence at the time of disasters due to climate change. Moreover, shifts in rainfall and temperature patterns affect crop yield and contribute to nutritional deficiencies among women.
Women’s participation in the climate change discourse has been minimal. This brings down the opportunities for representing the intersection of several forms of marginalisation and addressing the need for gender-specific policies in climate change. Noting that participation of women in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is only between 15 and 25 percent, a more equitable representation is necessary within the decision-making structure of these globally significant bodies. Trends in female participation in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show that the first assessment in 1990 had around 12 female authors and contributors, constituting merely 2% of all total scientists involved in the assessment (Gay-Antaki and Liverman, 2018). The question of gendered impacts is seldom addressed in international conferences and UN Council Sessions. Recent resolutions on climate change by the United Nations Security Council briefly mention women but none of the UNSC Resolutions have drawn significant focus to the security risks faced by women.
Women are often viewed as merely vulnerable while studies have found that women have been instrumental in enhancing environmental well-being. Underscoring the importance of women in conserving diversity, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) notes that the competence of women is underestimated. At the first World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet, women presented their environmental issues and economic effects and in turn, developed the Women’s Action Agenda 21 (WAA21) detailing recommendations for a healthy planet and mechanisms for incorporating the gender dimension into local, national and global decision-making. At a local level, women are found to develop sustainable options for improving food security and adapting to climate change. As carriers of traditional knowledge and with the capability to skillfully combine modern knowledge with traditional methods, women can positively contribute to climate change policies.
Gender-sensitive approaches include gender analyses and vulnerability assessments to effectively understand women’s and men’s concerns and capacities with respect to climate change. They have to be adopted in every step of the way, from planning to implementation and review. Recognising gender inequality in access to productive resources, such approaches can empower women as innovative agents and resilient and efficient policies.
Gender is also a societal construction that organises several aspects of social lives. Studies point out that the analysis of power relations between the genders is essential as it determines the way the climate debate is looked at. A feminist constructivist analysis can help understand the effects of the crisis on gender politics. The potential impacts of climate change have to be analysed in terms of the type and degree of vulnerability that people are exposed to. In order to close the gender gap in climate change discussions and decisions, research should adopt a gender-sensitive perspective to examine the gender-specific responsibilities, rights and risks associated with climate change. The scope of research can be extended beyond adaptation to establishing a gender perspective in mitigation. Institutions that are directly involved in climate change adaptation should address women’s priorities by focusing on aspects such as finance, support services and improved food security in order to strengthen the collective adaptive capacity of women.
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