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Are girls better at saving the planet than boys?

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"We think ahead. We are practical. We are inherently more likely to think inter-generationally." In a new Elders+Youngers debate, Mary Robinson argues that because women suffer disproportionately from poverty and social inequality, they are more likely to think about sustainability. What do you think – does gender matter? Join the debate!


I am being asked a provocative question, so my answer should rise to the occasion: yes, they are.

The reason for this is nothing to be celebrated. Women are simply worst affected by inequality, poverty and climate change. Six in ten of the world’s poorest inhabitants are women. The world over, women and girls’ responsibilities – notably in traditional roles as caregivers, water gatherers and food growers – make them most vulnerable to environmental hardships and economic downturn.

This is why I champion the concept of ‘climate justice’. The threats faced by our planet are grave, and it is the poor, the disempowered and the marginalised who will suffer most. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), women produce 90 per cent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa but own just 15 per cent of the land. In this age of droughts and flash-floods, women stand closer to the threats and, by the same token, have a greater sense of the urgent need for solutions.

Moreover, women are more attuned to the full meaning of sustainable development. We think ahead. We are practical. We are inherently more likely to think inter-generationally. Girls growing up may be thinking about the future promised to their children; they look ahead from the earliest age.

It frustrates me that ‘women’s empowerment’ tends to be tacked on to sustainable development as a kind of afterthought. To be clear: the empowerment of women is not optional. It is a fundamental condition of sustainable development. To quote what two of my fellow Elders recently wrote: “If we waste half the world's talent and potential, we simply cannot succeed.” I could not agree more.

Desmond Tutu often says the world would be a better place if women were running it. The research proves him right: governments where women play a greater role have been shown to be more likely to enact progressive social and environmental measures.

But the order of the day is not even about a lack of women in positions of leadership. It remains the continued struggle for basic empowerment.

My two questions to you:

  • How can men help bring about gender equality?
  • What you do think of the concept of climate justice? Is it helpful to the issues we are discussing on the way to Rio?

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