June 5 marks the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day, which the United Nations started in June 1972 at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Even after 50 years of efforts to preserve the environment, the effects of climate change are disproportionately felt by women. Female mortality rates from heat exposure have increased significantly since the 1970s. And inequalities in gender mortality rates from natural disasters have risen continuously from the 1970s to the 2000s. For example, 14 times as many women than men were killed when Cyclone Gorky hit Bangladesh in 1991. In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, women accounted for 70 per cent of all deaths, with that number rising to 80 per cent in the worst-hit areas.
There are many reasons women disproportionately face the negative consequences of climate change. They are particularly vulnerable, for example, because they often have to provide resources such as food, water and fuel for their households. The UN has estimated that about 383 million women and girls lived in extreme poverty at the end of last year. Despite 63 per cent of women aged 25 to 54 being in the global workforce, they still face an estimated 23 per cent wage gap compared to men. Meanwhile, a lack of economic and social empowerment restricts women’s involvement in climate change decision-making on adaptation and mitigation. Women and children under five bear an estimated 88 per cent of the burden of disease caused by climate change.
To address climate change, it is vital to acknowledge the gender component and include it in policy frameworks. Women must be at the forefront of developing sustainable technologies to be able to adapt to the changing climate. Developing infrastructure requires more investment that takes gender equality into account. Taking a gender-specific approach towards climate change will help elevate women’s rights issues and advance gender equality. It can also help increase production at a time when agriculture is threatened by climate change. Giving women the same access as men to agricultural resources can raise yields from women’s farms in developing countries by 20 to 30 per cent, according to a UN report, boosting overall farm output by up to 4 per cent.
Rwanda is one nation that stands out for its dedication to advancing gender equality, including efforts on climate change adaptation and mitigation. Its National Environment and Climate Change Policy underscores the significance of incorporating a gender perspective into action, and multiple networks serve as avenues for women to exchange knowledge, share experiences and advocate for climate policies that address gender considerations.
While women are recognised as being vulnerable to the effects of climate change, they are also champions of adaptation and mitigation measures. In Chile, women are bringing their skills in engineering, research and project management to participate in renewable energy projects, including the development of solar and wind energy. They play a vital role in advocating for energy efficiency and conservation practices within households and communities.
When member states adopted a gender action plan at the 2017 UN climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, they sought to improve the climate policy response to gender-related concerns. The need to ensure national adaptation plans are responsive to women’s needs has been underlined by UN climate bodies, which have also reinforced initiatives that elevate the equal involvement of women in climate advocacy and action.
On Gender Day during the 2021 UN climate change meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, women took to the global stage to demand greater representation. Even though a day was dedicated to gender issues, and multiple countries made financial pledges, the conference did not feature many women at the decision-making level, particularly indigenous women and those from vulnerable countries. This underrepresentation is concerning as women comprised less than a third of country negotiating teams attending the UN summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last year.
Another striking example of the gender disparity was evident in the group photo of world leaders at last year’s summit, where only seven of the 110 leaders present were women. This was one of the lowest concentrations of women at recent UN climate meetings, according to the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation, with the gender imbalance extending beyond leaders as some countries’ delegations consisted of over 90 per cent men.
One possible measure for the next UN climate change conference, which takes place from November 30 to December 12 in Dubai, is to give greater precedence to the gender action plan. This will involve encouraging states to create climate policies that consider gender equality and increase the representation of women in decision-making roles at all levels. It is critical to prioritise research on how climate change affects women, to aid in the development of more appropriate policy responses.
If the world’s largest climate conference were to focus on the effects of climate change on women and commit to ensuring their meaningful participation, it would have a significant impact on global decision-making while contributing to a just and sustainable future for all. Fifty years should be enough time for the world to implement a gender-sensitive climate agenda.