Policy actions that do not take gender perspectives into account can amplify gender inequalities. Photo: Arid Agriculture

Why mainstreaming gender will dictate the success of climate action

Including women’s voices at all levels of decision-making can not only strengthen the impact of climate policies, but also increase their socio-economic return on investment.

Over the past month or so, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final two instalments of its Sixth Assessment Report. These reports, which broadly consider adaptation and mitigation requirements, have once again raised the alarm on the implications of climate change and the realities of addressing these implications. 

There is now wide consensus that climate change poses significant threats to society, economy, lives, and livelihoods. The rapid increase of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is leading to frequent extreme weather events and creating acute climate risks such as sea-level rise and ocean acidification. Depleting forest cover is endangering the lives of wild animals and depriving forest-dependent communities of their livelihoods. Cyclones and coastal flooding are devastating coasts. Freshwater glaciers are melting and going the way of shrinking polar ice caps. Unpredictable rains are causing floods and droughts in places that historically saw neither. While climate change is causing upheaval in lives across social and economic classes, disruptions are almost always more severe for women.

Traditional gender roles, existing inequalities, and discriminatory social practices have conventionally deprived women of economic opportunities and livelihoods, and making them vulnerable to emotional, personal, and social adverse effects. This alarming situation warrants mainstreaming gender in climate action with a greater understanding of its amplifying impact on women. Including women’s voices, perspectives, and participation at all levels of decision-making can not only strengthen the impact of policies focused on sustainable development, resource management, and renewable energy but also increase their socio-economic return on investment.

Gendered impact of climate change

Climate change is not gender neutral. In the event of a disaster linked to climate change, men and women are likely to suffer alike. But the aftermath is where real differences begin to show. In the wake of any calamity, women are expected to adjust to the harsh realities of their new circumstances even as they continue to fulfil their traditional roles and obligations. The distinct impact of climate change on women is exacerbated in settings that are also affected by political instability, violent conflict, and economic strife. Some of the climate change impact areas and their gendered impact are discussed as follows:

  1. Food security: Financial distress due to crop failure, poor access to potable water, and inadequate quantity of firewood can increase the burden of domestic work on women. The need to walk long distances to fetch these resources can have adverse consequences on women’s health leading to selective malnourishment and hunger. Increase in unproductive domestic work can result in higher school dropout rates for young girls. Besides, food insecurity can lead to higher indebtedness, condemning women further to penury.  
  2. Access to clean water: Poor access to freshwater resources means the burden of finding water invariably falls on women. These journeys, which can be long and arduous, result in lost productive potential and poor levels of economic participation. Climate change can lead to more frequent droughts, desertification, and water stress. Water scarcity can compromise feminine hygiene, especially during pregnancy and menstruation, making women vulnerable to health hazards.
  3. Sustainable livelihood: Possession of livestock is heavily gendered in India with a large number of women involved in poultry farming, milking bovines, domesticating cattle for making dung cakes, shearing wool, fish breeding, etc. Rising temperatures and increased humidity levels due to climate change can make livestock less productive and lead to a significant decline in yields. Lack of skilling and upskilling opportunities can make it further difficult for women to shift to other sources of income.
  4. Migration and displacement: The increase in the frequency of extreme weather events can pose serious security risks and trigger massive displacement of communities for survival. It can also lead to voluntary migration to ‘safer’ environments as a form of adaptation and for better livelihood opportunities. This can strain the political, economic, and social fabric of the world and make women vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation. Often, asylum seekers have to spend years in displacement, living in camps devoid of privacy or sanitation. “Climate refugees” are not recognised under the existing international humanitarian law. Due to the fear of deportation, crippling financial conditions, and lack of employment opportunities, adolescent girls are married at a young age or forced into prostitution.

Mainstreaming gender considerations

The 1992 Rio Convention was the first international climate negotiation that recognised the special role of women in environmental management. Since then, the world has made major strides in integrating gender in development, implementation and monitoring of climate change policies and actions. The Lima Work Programme on Gender, launched in 2014, aimed at promoting gender balance and gender equality in the context of climate change policies. The 2015 Paris Agreement acknowledged promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women as key principles for all future climate action. Reference to gender can also be found in several Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy), SDG 11 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), and SDG 15 (Life on Land).

In India, the government is systematically integrating gender considerations in a number of initiatives being implemented at national and sub-national levels to strengthen specialised skills and capacities of women in different spheres of livelihood systems. For instance, it is encouraging gender-responsive budgeting and piloting action on gender review and gender audit of important legislations. India’s National Disaster Management Plan, 2019 aims to incorporate gender sensitive and equitable approaches in capacity development, covering all aspects of disaster management at the state, district, and local level.

Policy actions that do not take gender perspectives into account can amplify gender inequalities. Any climate action should, therefore, be planned and implemented with an explicit consideration of its impact on women. This can be achieved in the following ways:

  1. Plugging gaps in research, knowledge, and data by conducting a systematic analysis of climate change from a gender equity perspective. Parameters like age, marital status, caste, ethnicity, profession, and level of income can be used to disaggregate data and understand vulnerability, adaptation, and differentiated impact of climate change in the context of unequal gender relations. 
  2. Incorporating gender-specific impacts of climate change into adaptation programmes designed in areas related to agriculture, water, energy, health, food security, disaster management, and conflict. Building gender-responsive climate budgeting capacity can ensure better administration of funds allocated for implementation of these programmes.
  3. Ensuring women’s access to and ownership of development resources such as technology, credit, information, training, and capacity building. A gender perspective should be mainstreamed into development planning and decision-making at national and sub-national levels to ensure active participation of women as solution providers rather than only as users.  
  4. Investing in gender-responsive technological solutions that reflect the needs and concerns of women. This should also include strengthening, protecting, and preserving indigenous and traditional knowledge and practices in different sectors. New solutions should address the social, economic, and cultural constraints faced by women in benefiting from them. Besides, an enabling environment should be created in terms of participatory policies and skill development programmes to facilitate large-scale adoption of these green technologies. 
  5. Improving access to education and skill development programmes. What makes women especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change is a world dictated by patriarchy, in which they are expected to sacrifice choices and freedoms. Consequently, they face heightened risk of domestic violence, exploitation, sexual abuse, and human trafficking. Enhanced community participation and awareness can play an important role in lowering this risk.

The way forward

Women are powerful agents of change. They are making increasing and significant contributions to sustainable development. India’s Tulsi Gowda, a 72-year-old environmentalist, for instance, is actively contributing to nature preservation by planting thousands of trees. Due to her vast knowledge of diverse species of plants and herbs, she is today being recognised globally as the “Encyclopaedia of Forest”. With access to necessary skills and resources, women are well positioned to contribute to building livelihood strategies adapted to changing environmental realities. There is a need for a more coordinated effort to mainstream gender in climate action. The Nationally Determined Contributions submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change provide each country one such opportunity to revisit its national priorities on gender, and India will need to give this opportunity serious consideration if it hopes to achieve any sense of equitability as it attempts to fight off the ever-expanding climate change hydra.

Shreyans Jain, is a senior Analyst, Climate Finance at the Climate Policy Initiative
Labanya Prakash Jena is a doctoral scholar at the Xavier School of Management, XLRI
The authors can be contacted at shreyans.jain@cpiglobal.org and l.jena@commonwealthconnect.org
The views expressed are personal