on 12th November 2013

Walking the talk on gender and climate change

With seven minutes to spare before the end of a three-hour workshop about agriculture and adaptation to climate change, someone finally mentioned the word “women”…

As part of the annual UN climate talks, or ‘COP19’, the workshop was supposed to be exploring the impacts of climate change in agricultural practice. However, by treating this topic as somehow ‘gender neutral’, the discussions failed to look at agricultural adaptation from the different perspectives of women and men.

During the workshop, presenters spoke about a whole range of new technologies, including new varieties of rice, and new and better ways of doing things, such as farmer-led extension schemes. Yet, sadly, they consistently ignored the issue of gender blindness and inequalities prevalent in agriculture. When the term ‘farmer’ was used, it was invariably expressed as ‘he’, despite wel lpublicised findings from various high level bodies, such as the FAO, that indicate women make up 43% of the global agricultural labour force, with this percentage rising to 50% in parts of subSaharan Africa and Southeast Asia. These figures are often significantly higher in subsistence farming.

Gender norms and inequalities add significantly to the restrictions that women smallholder farmers face in accessing information, tools, inputs, land, market opportunities and credit. Technological advances are only ‘solutions’ if they can be accessed and used by both men and women. Surely, new ways of sharing knowledge depend on who is trained and how they are able to communicate with their peers?

Thinking about the implications of power inequality, in which gender roles play a major part, has become second nature to many of us immersed in development work. It can, therefore, come as a bit of a surprise when we find ourselves involved in processes related to tackling poverty and economic development, which are dominated by scientists and other technical experts, who may need to be reminded about the social and political aspects of both the problem and its potential solutions. We need to keep asking ‘the gender question’ at these platforms, not only because it is the right (and rights-based!) thing to do, but because, otherwise, gender-blindness will result in inadequate interventions, or technologies, that merely maintain or even worsen social inequalities, and fail to meet the needs of their target populations among the agricultural labour force.

I guess this is an illustration of what is meant by the “Every day is Gender Day” poster I saw here at the conference centre (referring to the official “Gender Day” on 19th November). A decision was taken last year at COP18 in Doha to increase the participation of women in UN climate change negotiations and to finally make gender a standing item on the climate negotiations’ agenda – issues which a gender workshop held at COP19 this week explored in more depth. Gender inequality isn’t a problem that only affects gender experts, or women attending climate change conferences.

That is why a more comprehensive approach under the Convention should be a next step, for example through a gender action plan which would promote gender across the different areas of work the negotiations address. If we are going to come up with sustainable and equitable solutions to the impacts of climate change, we all need to think more strategically about how best to address the needs and priorities of everyone involved – women and men, girls and boys. The real challenge is to make sure that these negotiations result in men and women living in poverty being equally, and adequately, supported to so they can adapt to the changing climate.

Ultimately, this comes down to the big decisions we need to secure from the UN climate talks that are good for everyone: drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and a substantial commitment of funds for adaptation, as well as ways of dealing with the loss and damage which is already occurring in vulnerable countries and communities. But it also requires targeted action that recognises and responds to the specific roles and interests of men and women as producers of food, providers for families, and people with equal human rights to a secure and dignified livelihood.


Raja Jarrah is a CARE International climate change consultant.

Raja Jarrah

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