Gender justice is climate justice

If global leaders are committed to a green transition that leaves no one behind, they must address the needs of vulnerable women and girls in developing countries, who bear the brunt of climate change at the upcoming COP28 summit.

Women and gender_COP27 summit
An all-women delegation at 2022's COP27 summit held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Image: FEMNET

The Paris Summit for a New Global Financing Pact, held in June this year, rightly focused on promoting an inclusive climate action plan that leaves no one behind. As 13 world leaders stressed in a joint commentary published ahead of the gathering, the world must ensure that climate initiatives do not overshadow other development efforts, including the global fight against poverty.

This is a daunting challenge, particularly at a time when centrifugal forces threaten the rules-based international order and many countries are grappling with rising interest rates and elevated debt levels. But if global leaders are serious about leaving no one behind, they must address the specific needs of vulnerable groups – especially women and girls, who comprise half of the world’s population.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG5) – achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls – is inextricably linked to other SDGs, such as those covering health, education, and access to water. Climate change jeopardises all these interconnected goals, potentially generating a cascading effect.

Women and girls in developing countries, particularly those living in rural areas, bear the brunt of the climate crisis. For starters, girls are often tasked with acquiring water and food for their families. Given that most indigenous families have at least five members, these responsibilities amount to a heavy burden – one that becomes heavier as the climate crisis escalates, forcing girls to travel increasingly long distances to fulfill their families’ needs.

This contributes, for example, to girls arriving at school late. Moreover, without access to clean water, girls struggle to maintain their menstrual health and hygiene. Such challenges force some to drop out of school, thereby losing their chance to acquire quality basic education. Climate change also contributes to increases in child marriage, as desperate families trade their daughters for scarce resources.

Climate change exacerbates other societal problems affecting girls and women, such as gender-based violence. And given that women carry out most of the unpaid domestic and care work, they face distinct challenges when disasters strike. This has been the case in Uganda, which has lately faced severe climate-related catastrophes, such as floods in the east and southwest and prolonged drought in the north. Since few women have training in disaster mitigation, they die at higher rates than men under such circumstances.

Despite all of this, women and other vulnerable groups are frequently sidelined in climate-policy discussions. The recent Africa Youth Climate Assembly – held the day before the inaugural Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi – showed just what a serious problem this is.

At the event, young people representing various African countries discussed climate-related challenges with which they have first-hand experience, shared personal stories, and engaged with leaders and peers. As the Africa Climate Summit unfolded, many youth-led organisations continued their work, holding climate walks, side events, and press conferences highlighting further the issues that directly affect them and their communities, but were being left out of the leaders’ discussions.

These young people (including one of us) observed with astonishment that most leaders and international organisations seemed focused primarily on carbon markets, but paid little attention to pressing issues like increased plastic pollution in Africa. They were equally dismayed by nebulous commitments to allocate resources for resilience and adaptation measures, and vague promises to help countries deal with loss and damage from climate-driven disasters.

The Africa Climate Summit should be a platform for African people – particularly youth – to share and propose homegrown solutions, rather than an opportunity for polluters to promote strategies that perpetuate the crisis. Africa is not a dumping ground; it is a continent rich with innovative thinkers and viable solutions. African climate solutions are global solutions, and Africans’ ideas deserve attention and genuine support.

Solutions devised without input from those directly affected will always fall short, and the consequences of leaving some behind can extend well beyond the group in question. Consider agriculture. Despite playing a central role in the sector, women often lack the same access to agricultural resources, services, and formal decision-making bodies as their male counterparts.

Increasing women’s access to these resources would not only reduce their vulnerability; it would also bolster the food security and climate resilience of households and communities. The Food and Agriculture Organisation projects that ensuring gender equality in farming could boost women’s farm yields by 20 to 30 per cent. The resulting efficiency gains could reduce global hunger by at least 12 to 15 per cent and lead to a 2.1 gigatonne decrease in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

Similarly, Project Drawdown, a coalition of scientists and economists from around the world, lists girls’ education as one of the most effective ways to combat global warming, particularly when combined with voluntary family planning. Bridging the gender gap in education could help countries adapt to climate change and mitigate its worst effects. Investing in girls’ education prepares them for the future they inherit and reduces the existing inequalities many women and girls face. Likewise, integrating climate topics into school curricula could foster greater ecological awareness among these children and thus contribute to their communities’ resilience.

It is too soon to assess the Paris Summit’s impact. But the event undeniably set the tone for subsequent international gatherings, including the Africa Climate Summit, as well as the G20 meeting in New Delhi and the annual session of the UN General Assembly. The message that emerged from these meetings – that climate change and development must be addressed simultaneously – is also likely to feature prominently at November’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in the United Arab Emirates.

This is a start. But for any climate change plan to be really effective, especially in emerging and developing economies, it must ensure women’s social, economic, and political participation. Upcoming international summits, beginning with COP28, must therefore reflect a steadfast commitment to gender justice, and transform the “leave no one behind” mantra from a catchy slogan into tangible actions, both at the policy and grassroots levels. While proactive measures may be expensive, inaction would be far more costly.

Immaculate Atuhamize is a climate and gender activist from Uganda. Bertrand Badré, a former managing director of the World Bank, is CEO and founder of Blue like an Orange Sustainable Capital and the author of Can Finance Save the World? (Berrett-Koehler, 2018).

© Project Syndicate 1995–2023

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