on 26th November 2012

Is ensuring fairness in the UN Doha climate talks down to women?

CARE’s Africa Climate Adaptation and Global Gender Advisor, Agnes Otzelberger, says a small decision in Doha could have big consequences for women facing the impacts of climate change.

Given that women make up half of the world’s population, and often bear the brunt of climate change impacts, it seems logical that the UN’s Doha climate talks would ensure equal representation of men and women decision-makers as a matter of course.

Not so. In fact, women are woefully underrepresented in the only global forum to discuss progress to tackle climate change. On average, they make up just a third of all participants, and often even less than that. At the previous meeting of states in Bangkok, just 29% of delegates and only 14% of the heads of delegations were women. The statistics remain worrying low, especially given the decision to address women’s absence from the UN process was taken over a decade ago.

So, on the surface it may seem that a new proposal, tabled by a range of EU countries meeting at the latest round of climate talks in Doha this week, is going to solve the problem. A draft text suggests that the UN climate convention tackles gender equality by including more women in the discussions. In other words, it assumes that by fixing the problem of low representation, all will be well.

Noble though this is, it’s not enough. Promoting gender equality in the climate talks is far bigger than just increasing the numbers of women involved. Women deserve a fair chance to shape global climate change policy as much as men – no matter what decisions they make. But even more importantly, women and men worldwide, particularly those who will be picking up the largest share of the human cost of climate change, deserve fair decisions from the UN climate talks.

This is important because there is a great deal at stake for the millions of women and girls who are far removed from the UN process. It is their lives and futures which will be dramatically affected by climate change. Decisions taken by governments need to be fair for them; they need to address the injustice that climate change inflicts on the world’s most vulnerable populations. And, as part of that, decisions must also address the persistent problem of gender inequalities. For example, barriers many women face in accessing finance. Or the high risk that financial burdens on countries tackling climate change impacts may also affect budgets that influence how well women, men, boys and girls are able to cope with climate change impacts, such as health, welfare and education.

It seems unlikely that one little word could make any difference at all in resolving these issues. But the path governments choose will be determined by a simple but crucial difference between ‘and’ and ‘by’. The tabled proposal could shape the direction of action on climate change for many years to come. “Promoting gender equality by improving the participation of women” falls far short. “Promoting gender equality and improving the participation of women” will ensure a better chance of a well balanced, fair representation of women in the climate talks and a better chance of well balanced, fair policies. If governments get it wrong, women’s participation in tackling climate change may well be little more than a tokenistic gesture with consequences that could reach far beyond Doha.

Lobina Dawe, 30, is a farmer, mother-of-three and is a member of the 10-woman strong unit known locally in her village in Malawi as the ‘Mothers Group’.
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