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Climate change is a gender issue

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Mary Robinson is attending the Conference of Parties 20 in Lima, Peru. High on the agenda is gender equality.


Here in the ‘COP bubble’, while pouring over the minutiae of draft text and decisions, we have to constantly remind ourselves of the realities of the lives of those who are already living with the impacts of climate change. Today is Gender Day at COP20/CMP10 in Lima. This designation of an official day by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is not just recognition that climate change impacts on men and women differently; it is also recognition of the role of women in climate change action.

It is important that we pay attention to these intergovernmental processes because what occurs in one can have an impact on another particularly for cross-cutting issues such as gender. Any row back on gender equality in one process weakens the established norms in other processes. So many women and men have fought for and achieved strong commitments to gender equality in international policy processes over many years. Indeed next year we will mark the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration. Twenty years on from an international Declaration that recognised that women’s rights are human rights, that gender equality is essential for progress in our world, unfortunately, we must still remain vigilant in the fight for gender equality.

In the COP right now gender equality is an issue being discussed. Women are amongst those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change often because they have no independent income or land rights. In many countries women are responsible for the provision of water and food for their families. When the usual sources of food and water are disrupted women must travel further, spend more time working for less return, make choices about whether or not they can send a child to school, which family member can eat.

To address the realities of women on the ground climate action must be gender sensitive; policies must respond to the needs of women. How best to ensure that climate action policies are gender sensitive? Ask women!

But of course women are rarely consulted about what support they need to build resilience and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Half of the world’s population are women, but we do not have half the decision making power.

Two years ago at COP19, we left Doha with what many of us referred to as ‘the Doha Miracle’ – Decision 23/CP.18. Thanks to this decision we are able to track the gender balance of delegations and bodies and boards of the UNFCCC. A recent report by the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation indicates that at COP 20, delegations have 7% more women delegates than COP 19, which illustrates some progress in implementing 23/CP.18. Unfortunately, many of the UNFCCC bodies and boards are still a long way from gender parity and this needs to be addressed. However, representation of and participation by women in the UNFCCC process is just one piece of the puzzle.

I have met women such as Ursula Rakova who is leading the resettlement of her community from the Carteret Islands to Papua New Guinea because of rising sea levels. Ursula’s people are amongst those who have contributed least to the problem of climate change yet they must make a new home, find new livelihoods, new schools but they cannot take with them the bones of their ancestors.

Ursula is a woman leading on climate justice and I meet many such women in my work. Against all of the climate disruption we know with absolute certainty that women can be powerful agents of change. Women across all sectors of society are already leading the way in efforts to build resilience and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Just over two months ago, on the margins of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in New York, my Foundation co-hosted the Leaders’ Forum on Women Leading the Way: Raising Ambition for Climate Action’ with UN Women. The forum brought together indigenous women, young women, women farmers and community leaders, women heads of state and government and former heads of state and government, women in business and academia from 54 nations.

My fellow Elders, Graça Machel and Gro Harlem Brundtland and I listened as the women called on their governments to give courageous leadership and to act in solidarity for climate justice. Women’s empowerment, greater participation in decision-making processes, increased accountability, courage in leadership and the need to integrate human rights into climate actions were among the issues repeatedly highlighted by participants at the Forum. The gathering demonstrated that women around the world are leading in the development of climate solutions. Because climate change threatens our very existence we simply cannot disregard the experiences of women or their agency.

That gender equality is a human right is not just the concern of half the world’s population; it is the concern of us all because no society can develop – economically, politically or socially – when half of its population is marginalised. Over the next 12 months governments will work towards a new climate agreement and a Post-2015 development agenda that will frame the future of humanity in a climate disrupted world. Inclusive sustainable development will only be realised when all human rights – and this includes gender equality - are protected, respected and fulfilled.

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