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OPINION: The gender and climate change debate – Equal rights or uniform roles?

In celebration of International Women’s Day on 8th March, Mehrunisa Malik, Learning and Knowledge Networks Associate for CDKN Asia, argues that a more sophisticated analysis is needed of women’s roles and influences in different cultures. Only then can women and men contribute fully to climate compatible development where they live.

The debate on gender and climate change has centered on the notion of women being vulnerable and virtuous. Vulnerable, more than men to the impacts of climate change in developing countries; and virtuous, also more than men in protecting the environment and consuming resources with more consideration. Though the latter is yet to be established, there is evidence and research showing the unequal impacts of climate change on women in developing countries, rendering them more vulnerable to changes than men. It is, however, evident that this debate has not progressed beyond the establishment of vulnerability in the past decade.  There is little to no discussion on understanding the power relations due to which these vulnerabilities arise, and the contextual bearings of class, ethnicity, religion and social norms in tackling vulnerabilities.

Various studies and reports by UNDP, UN WomenWatch, OECD and others have established that there are significant gender dimensions to climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. In the Fact Sheet on ‘Women, Gender Equality and Climate Change’, UN WomenWatch point out the increased vulnerability of women to climate change than men due mainly to the social, economic and political barriers faced by women in developing countries, and their dependence on natural resources for water, livelihoods, food and fuel that are often more susceptible to climate impacts. Coupled with unequal access to resources, exclusion from decision-making processes and limited mobility, women are disproportionately affected by climate change, making it necessary to identify gender-sensitive strategies when responding to climate impacts.

In the 52nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women, it was stated that though women are more vulnerable to climate change than men, it is important to remember that they are also effective actors or agents of change in relation to both mitigation and adaptation. The roles of women in households and communities gives them a strong body of knowledge and expertise that can be used in climate change mitigation, disaster reduction and adaptation strategies. Furthermore, women’s responsibilities in households and communities, as stewards of natural and household resources, positions them well to contribute to livelihood strategies adapted to changing environmental realities. To address gender specific impacts of climate change, financing mechanisms must be flexible enough to reflect women’s priorities and needs. It is also evident that women in developing countries are in most cases underrepresented in decision-making processes at the local level, often resulting in activities that are skewed towards male perspectives. The consultation and participation of women in climate change initiatives should therefore be ensured to allow them to contribute their unique perspectives and expertise, especially on issues related to management and use of natural resources.

The call for women specific policies and separate allocation of resources for women in climate change initiatives lends the gender and climate debate a women-centric approach. Contextual bearings of roles and responsibilities of men and women within a unit such as a household are ignored, resulting in a skewed understanding of vulnerabilities that rides on the notion that men and women will suffer impacts separately and differently. While it is true that the impacts may be different, the impacts are not separate, requiring a level of caution while using a gender lens to assess vulnerabilities. Indirect and transferred effects of climate impacts on both must be understood to rightly assess vulnerabilities at a household level. Though women can be effective agents of change in tackling climate impacts, there is a possibility of piling on increased responsibilities on women where the vulnerabilities are transferred to them from climate impacts experienced by men.

The bias of the gender equation towards women is not just specific to the climate change community, but in many gender mainstreaming activities in developing countries. The gender dialogue often tends to get confused as there is little or no distinction between the ‘equality of rights’ and ‘uniformity of roles’. It is important to note that efforts for equality of rights for women and men is not dependent on, nor does it require a uniformity of roles, especially in local developing country contexts.   Gender mainstreaming should strive to identify and strengthen roles of females and males in accordance with the social attributes and opportunities associated with being a woman or a man. In developing countries, these roles are contextualised by cultural norms, education level and tolerance in a given society, and are often misunderstood or misinterpreted due to preconceived notions with regards to the responsibilities of a particular gender. This happens because the attributes and opportunities are context and time specific, hence changeable. The gender equality debate is not about making man and woman the same, but about providing equal opportunity and value to each gender, by evaluating the roles within a unit such as household, and establishing the diversity within.

CDKN has been working actively on including gender considerations and looking at projects through a gender lens to truly influence climate-related planning and its outcomes. In India, CDKN worked with Alternative Futures to promote genuinely gender-sensitive implementation of Indian state climate action plan, and in 2014, commissioned a film titled “Missing” which chronicles the lives of the Nahi women in India as they fight the impacts of climate change on a daily basis. The film underscores the need for increased institutional support to women farmers, such as providing land ownership and scaling up access to government schemes.

While mainstreaming gender consideration in climate change activities gains momentum, there is a demand to collect more evidence and data to further prove the unequal impacts of climate change on women. If we assess vulnerabilities separately for men and women – alone – without assessing who has influence in difference spheres, this runs the risk of generating skewed information and an ineffective allocation of resources. Simply by including women one cannot hope to equally benefit women. Planning for equal and just benefits for women and men from climate change initiatives without considering roles and responsibilities can result in barriers and an ineffective use of resources. An effective way to mainstream the gender debate should centre on equal rights and non-uniform roles, and must vary based on social and cultural contexts.

Join the gender and climate change debate? What do you think needs to change? Leave your comments below.


Image: Indian women, courtesy DFID.

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