Women’s Empowerment Paramount in the Race to Solve Climate Change

November 1, 2021

Photo credit: Ardana Taybek, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, 2020

Climate change represents the most complex challenge of our time.  The clock on climate change began ticking in the 1960s and 1970s. The countdown today to stave of environmental catastrophe is akin to the sound of a death knoll for our planet. Climate change now threatens all countries without exception. Those least responsible for the climate crisis are the most affected with local populations around the world becoming more vulnerable to environmental disasters and inequalities becoming more entrenched. In this context, one overarching issue is the disproportionate impact of climate change on women who are also more vulnerable segments of the population. To counteract this trend, one of the most effective mechanisms for making households and communities more resilient to climate disasters  is to close the gender gap in a systematic fashion to help mitigate the impact of climatic threats.

Evidence shows that women’s empowerment and advancing gender equality can deliver results across a variety of sectors, including food and economic security and health. It can also lead to more environmentally friendly decision-making at household and national levels. Conversely, gender inequality may dramatically limit the resilience and adaptive capacity of women, families and communities, and it may also restrict options for climate change mitigation.

International organizations, whose principles are recognized as global standards, have made gender mainstreaming a standard input in climate policy planning. Gender inequality greatly affects the degree of vulnerability of women and girls to climate change. The discrimination is multidimensional in scope, caused by uneven development processes, not by climatic factors. These factors determine the risks that relate specifically to climate change. Those particularly vulnerable are women and girls individuals from socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized social groups.

This increased vulnerability is rarely the result of a single cause, but is more frequently the outcome of intersecting social processes that engender inequities in socio-economic status and income and affect the degree of exposure to existing risks. Such social factors include gender-based discrimination, class, ethnic background, age and lack of opportunity.

Climate change has wrought patterns of inequity

The impacts of climate change, including on access to productive and natural resources, have exacerbated already existing gender inequities. Climate change affects women's and men's assets and well-being in a different way in agriculture, industry, food security, health, water and energy resources, climate-induced migration and conflicts and in climate-related natural disasters. Women's dependence on land, water and other resources, on productive assets and their unequal access to them is in many cases worsened by limited mobility and decision-making powers. This means climate change impacts them disproportionately harshly. Moreover, women and girls typically carry out unpaid care-giving and household labour – with climate change only tightening this millstone around women’s necks.

In Kazakhstan women still have limited access, ownership and control over resources and limited power and decision-making rights in the family and community, yet they are more vulnerable than men to the effects of climate change. But the probability that their voice remains unheard is high because women have no bellwether role in climate action. They are manifestly underrepresented in decision-making and in the leadership ranks that deal with climate action design, implementation and monitoring and evaluation.

Women need to fill the ranks deployed for climate action

Ironically, with their local knowledge and natural resource management skills, women can play a unique role in managing climate change adaptation and mitigation in Kazakhstan. For centuries, women passed on their knowledge and skills in water resources management and in woodland and biodiversity management. This experience must be coopted in the effort to identify and implement apposite adaptation and mitigation methods. It is vitally important that women take action to combat climate change, and that policies and programmes respond to women's specific needs, challenges and priorities.

The growing acknowledgement of the disproportionate impacts of climate change on women and girls in recent years has gone hand-in-hand with a growing awareness of their role as agents of change, and of the immense value of gender equality and women's empowerment outcomes in realizing the social, economic and climate benefits of sustainable development.

Unleashing the knowledge and capability of women represents an important opportunity to craft effective climate change solutions for the benefit of all.

Tailwinds help push gender issues onto climate agenda

This is acknowledged in the progress made in integrating gender issues into climate negotiations, climate planning and climate action, as evidenced in the efforts to adopt and implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Lima work programme on gender for promoting gender balance and achieving gender-responsive climate policy, as well as the gender equality considerations in the UNFCCC Paris Agreement.

Thus, the UNFCCC gender action plan (2019) is a step forward in mainstreaming gender into climate change action. This document recommends the full integration of gender perspectives into climate policies and actions, including capacity-building and knowledge-sharing, communication, thereby adhering to the concept of having a gender balance in climate participation and leadership and in the implementation of gender-responsive activities (UNFCCC, 2019b).

In the Paris Agreement (Article 7, paragraph 5), the Parties acknowledge that adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach. Such action should be based on the best available science and should  integrate adaptation into relevant socio-economic and environmental policies and actions. The link between gender and climate is monitored through nationally determined contributions from countries that can ensure women's participation in climate change decision-making.

National communications to the UNFCCC are an important entry point for promoting gender issues in education, awareness-raising and capacity-building efforts in climate change action. As defined by the UNFCCC Secretariat, a comprehensive gender mainstreaming strategy is a process of "...assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in any area and at all levels...".

The development of communications also influences other ongoing climate change planning and policymaking processes, such as national plans for adaptation, mitigation, provision of information on the development and/or implementation of nationally determined contributions, national and sectoral plans for gender and climate change, among others. Moreover, the reporting process is more transparent when it includes elements of gender analysis.

Thus, clearly, climate change cannot deemed to be outside the gender agenda. It is critically important that countries have a systematic understanding of the impacts of climate change on different population groups including women. Countries also need to take the necessary measures to ensure climate change does not further exacerbate inequalities and to actively use women’s potential by adopting more gender-sensitive policies to mitigate climatic threats and to avert an environmental meltdown.