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OPINION: Not just about women: revisiting the meaning of ‘gender’ in delivering climate and weather information

Beatrice Mosello of ODI and Sebastian Kratzer of CDKN report from a recent conference on the gender dimensions of weather and climate services.

When UN member states adopted the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995, the concept of gender mainstreaming promised a revolutionary change in international and domestic policy processes towards making gender issues a core consideration. Today, like other conceptual approaches, the extent to which gender mainstreaming has been successfully applied in practice is rather disappointing. Unlike other conceptual approaches, however, gender mainstreaming has survived, so that we can still find it in debates such as the ones on climate resilience, food security, disaster risk reduction and water resources management.

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) recently held an international conference on “The Gender Dimensions of Weather and Climate Services” (5-7 November 2014, Geneva), aimed at understanding “why gender matters for weather and climate services”. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon acknowledged in his message to the conference that the meeting represented “a collective commitment to bring women to the center of climate mitigation and adaptation – and to better tailor climate information”.

The core message that emerged from the conference is that climate and weather information can (and should) be delivered in ways that improve the capacities of women and men to respond and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Ideally, this recognition will also feed into international processes such as the Beijing+20 review, the Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda (SDG). Obviously, the question that resonated in our minds was: how can this be done?

The conference highlighted a few possible answers. First, there is a pressing need to understand the factors and conditions that make both women and men ‘vulnerable’, for example, by limiting their access to clean drinking water, health and sanitation services. Gender-specific vulnerabilities can be revealed by data and information that are disaggregated by sex, age and other criteria that differentiate people’s access to resources and services. Not only women are not equal to men, but it’s also the case that not all women are equal: rich women are very different from poor ones, women in rural areas will have other priorities than the ones living in cities. Therefore, as pointed out by Ms Jyoti Sanghera (Chief of Human Rights and Economic and Social Issues at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) it is “imperative that we understand these complex dynamics and unpack power relations between human beings, or we risk creating further inequalities and triggering motives for conflict”.

Once vulnerabilities are understood, we need to address them – or, even better, we need to provide people with the information and knowledge they require to address them (following the old mantra in the development world that you do not give people a fish, but you teach them how to fish). Here, climate and weather services become crucial to inform action in preparation and response to severe weather. Two considerations, however, must be kept in mind.

First, you need to know who your end users are, and understand them and their needs. “People in rural communities believe so much more in their traditional knowledge than in science”, said Tracy Kajumba from the ACCRA project in Uganda (a CDKN-funded project); and “our project is testing ways to merge science and tradition in a useful way in order to provide understandable information on weather-related hazards and climate change to people”.

And second, the means by which you communicate the information are important too: you can send weather forecasts by text message to farmers, but what if farmers do not have access to mobile phones (as it was said to be the case for women in rural China)? Their crops will fail. Instead, methods to deliver weather warnings can include community-based techniques, such as using a trusted person to provide weather information to women in places like local markets and watering holes. “You do not need to create a specific platform to share climate and weather information: identify one that already exists’, build on it, and “make sure it is accessible to women and men equally,” explained Ms Lesha Witmer (Chair of the Standing Committee on Environment, Sustainable Development and Water of Business and Professional Women International).

The message is that women are perfectly able to empower themselves. The role of the UN, governments, development agencies, researchers, NGOs is to produce the information they need to act meaningfully within their own socio-political and cultural context. And it is also our responsibility to package and disseminate this information in a reliable, relevant and useful format, which can be combined with traditional knowledge. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the conference highlighted that there is a urgent need for gender to start meaning more than the simple men-women dichotomy. This means understanding people’s many different identities, necessities, interests, and the relations they have built with the environment, towards making sense of the way climate change is created, dealt with and remedied.

CDKN’s new project Gender Equality and Climate Compatible Development: Drivers and challenges to people’s empowerment has precisely this goal. The research addresses major knowledge gaps on the gender dimension of climate change mitigation, adaptation, and development, and aims to strengthen the evidence base for gender-sensitive approaches across these fields. We hope that it will demonstrate to what extent gender sensitivity will increase gender equality, paving the way for more effective climate compatible development and contributing to or common goal of helping people to empower themselves.


Image credit: The World Bank 


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