Gender equality: A cornerstone for environmental and climate justice

March 29, 2022

One of the greatest challenges to human rights, the ‘triple planetary crisis’ of climate change, pollution and nature loss, directly impacts a broad range of rights, including the rights to food, health, development and the very right to life. The risks and threats of this crisis affect everyone, but a person’s gender, place of living, livelihood and socioeconomic situation determine the gravity of this influence.

Men and women, households and communities face different impacts based on their level of vulnerability and resilience. Women and girls, especially those in crisis affected contexts, living in rural areas, belonging to a minority, or Indigenous groups, are particularly affected. Conversely, gender inequality and unequal access of women to land, natural resources and other assets constrain their ability to deal with climate and environmental crises and disasters, and to fully enjoy their environmental rights.

UNDP’s environmental justice approach focuses on promoting justice and accountability in environmental and climate change matters through the realization of environmental rights and the promotion of the environmental rule of law. Gender equality is a cross-cutting priority in this effort.

The focus of the sixty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW66) on “achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes” provides a timely opportunity to share three key points on how gender equality is key for climate justice:

1)  An enabling and gender sensitive legal framework is a prerequisite for women to enjoy their right to a healthy environment

Despite the critical role women have in the management of land and natural resources and climate action, research indicates that in 123 countries (roughly in two thirds of all the States in the world), traditional, religious and customary laws and practices limit women’s freedom to claim and protect these assets. National legal and policy frameworks on climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction often do not provide a basis for gender-responsive governance. And even in cases where laws and policies do incorporate gender equality, they often treat  women as vulnerable groups rather than as agents of change, restricting their ability to fulfil their leadership potential.

Transformative changes require that legal frameworks empower women, enable their  engagement, and protect their environmental rights. UNDP has extensive experience supporting countries to mainstream gender within policies and legal frameworks. For instance, in Albania UNDP works with the Government to support gender equality as an prerequisite to sustainable development, assisting lawmakers to review the legislation and ensure that human and particularly women’s rights are embodied throughout Albanian laws.  

2) People-centred institutions are key to deliver gendered responses on climate justice

Climate justice requires both inter-ministerial coordination as well as institutions that are well capacitated on the gender dimensions of climate change. UNDP is focusing on building capacities of institutions, including national-level decision makers, for more gender-responsive climate action. In Uganda a pilot project is addressing the negative consequences of climate change and the increased risk of gender-based violence. Among other efforts, the project is building capacities of district- and community-level representatives including Ministries of Water, Environment and Agriculture and community leaders to address gender violence risks.

In addition, the essential role of women in resource governance structures is well recognized. For instance, at the local level the participation of women in natural resource management is associated with better resource governance and conservation outcomes. UNDP has worked with 97 countries to strengthen women’s leadership in the management of natural resources. This includes support to Zambia’s Central Province to require gender balance in local governance committees that manage indigenous forests.

3) Access to justice is a cornerstone in equipping women to uphold and enforce their rights

UNDP’s research on the ground showed important intersections between climate change, livelihoods and violence against women. The increase in violence against women environmental human rights defenders, including indigenous women, remains a challenge. In 2020, at least 331 environmental defenders were killed, including 44 women, 69 percent of whom were defending land rights, the rights of Indigenous peoples and environmental rights. Women who are already more vulnerable and subject to several forms of discrimination, such as LGBTIQ+ and refugee women, face additional risks and further obstacles in accessing justice. 

To address this challenge, it is necessary to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls in contexts of climate and environmental crises and disasters. Victims and survivors should have equal and unimpeded access to high-quality services; women environmental human rights defenders should be guaranteed protection; effective investigations of violations and abuses should lead to accountability of perpetrators and justice for victims. In the West Bank, a joint UNDP-UN Women-UNICEF project supported the opening of a specialized court for violence against women in the Nablus Court, the first of its kind in the occupied Palestinian territories.

A sustainable future for all is not possible without gender equality. UNDP’s environmental justice strategy will be a cornerstone of a more integrated approach to deliver climate justice on the ground, ensuring that gender equality and the realization of women’s environmental rights are priorities in advocacy and programming efforts.

Transformative changes require that legal frameworks empower women, enable their engagement, and protect their environmental rights.