Environment

Gender Must Stay High on COP21’s Agenda

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the family photo of Leaders at COP21. Source: UNFCCC

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the family photo of Leaders at COP21. Source: UNFCCC

If you are at COP21 in Paris this week or have been closely tracking the climate talks online, chances are that you have come across this picture representing the Leaders Summit. This event, on the opening day of the COP, saw participation from more than 150 world leaders who addressed the conference in a bid to draw attention to climate change and the need for a global climate treaty.

Over the last few days, Le Bourget, the site of the conference in the north of Paris, has seen everyone from scientists, academics, activists, farmers and CEOs converge to debate and discuss what has come to be called the most pressing issue of our time. But for those who have been closely analysing country statements and commitments at the Leaders Summit – let’s pause and look at this picture again. Apart from the almost too-noticeable black suits, there is something else you need to notice if you haven’t already: the women in the ranks.

For a conference that aims to achieve an equitable climate treaty, a world where women are under-represented in most cabinets of government can hardly claim to have been successful. The UNFCCC has officially declared December 8 as Gender Day at COP21. Throughout the day, there will be different events centered on incorporating the role of gender into climate justice and the anticipated Paris agreement. These events target women heads of state, women students, grassroots leaders and indigenous women leaders. However, by declaring a particular day dedicated to gender, we stand the danger of bypassing real action if women are not even present at the negotiation tables. In order to ensure that women are key agents in the actual decision making processes, engaging their leadership at all levels must be a key element of any successful strategy to combat climate change.

In many countries, women are the first line of defence against the effects of climate change. Including their knowledge, experience and input will make natural resource management and efforts to reduce climate change more successful. As Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director for UN Women, said, “While world leaders negotiate a climate change agreement, a mother in Ethiopia will make the difficult choice to take her daughter out of school to help in the task of gathering water, which requires more and more time with each passing year.” Thus, not only does gender need to be included in the agreement but women will need to hold decision-making positions in party delegations and UN secretariats as well.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, women have only now started earning what men did a decade ago – with the report suggesting that it will take another 118 years to close the global gender gap across health, education, politics and economic opportunity. For negotiators mulling over clauses and articles this week, this dimension cannot and should not be ignored. It is something to say that we want a gender responsive climate agreement and another thing to have hardly any women contributing to that agreement. So far, most of the gender-related discussions have happened on Gender Day with only some interventions being made by women’s groups at side events and a few main plenaries. But this is COP21, which means that we have had twenty meetings precede the current one in Paris. Have we done enough to represent the voice of the other half of the world?

It is easy to be content at the sight of groups of indigenous women walking past the booths in the espaces Générations climat (the Climate Generations Area) or to see the Women and Gender Constituency at COP21 lobby furiously. But the fact still remains that women’s representation in bodies and boards of the UNFCCC ranges from 36% to 41%. The numbers drop to 26%-33% for female heads of national delegations. Only one in five authors of the 2014 IPCC fifth assessment report, and eight of 34 IPCC chairs, co-chairs, and vice-chairs are women. Importantly, even though media coverage of climate change has increased significantly, only 15% of those interviewed on climate have been women. Disappointing when the head of UNFCCC is herself a fearless and far sighted Costa Rican woman: Christiana Figueres.

But women are not ones to be pushed to the sidelines easily. For anyone currently at the talks, a quick walk around the exhibitions and booths at COP21 reveal interesting modus operandi. Amongst the scores of displays and stalls,  it is hard to miss some. Take for instance a group called ‘Moms for Earth’ who are there to fight for the rights of their children, or ‘Wpower’ a group showcasing solar cookers and fruit driers for women in rural areas or the Association Shamengo, a group displaying green architecture ideas designed by women. These displays not only fuel discussions around sustainable innovation but also send out a strong message: that we cannot hope to have a sustainable future with half of the global potential under-utilised. If we could harness the creativity and talent of women, imagine the perspectives and insights that more women would bring to the same Leader’s Summit pictured above.

The past few weeks have seen major announcements to herald the Paris agreement – the International Solar Alliance, a Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform Communiqué, pledges to the Least Developed Countries Fund, and others. In between these were some that focused directly on gender, including an announcement by the African Development Bank to pledge affirmative climate finance action to boost agriculture business for women and a UN Climate Resilience Initiative with a focus on women’s vulnerability. As countries progress into more days packed with negotiations, let’s hope that gender stays high on the political agenda and is not relegated to some nondescript part of the agreement. It’s just the culmination of day three at COP21 but discussions on these issues cannot be postponed further.

Indeed, there is no dearth of issues to cover at COP21 with each more complex than the other. There is also no denying that leaders face a daunting task in doing justice to addressing all of those issues. But of what use is political will if it is crippled by lack of women’s representation? The time has never been more ripe for putting the spotlight on women’s participation. It has been overdue to have more women at the tables, and not just in numbers but also in spirit. Paris could be remembered either for making history of repeating it – let’s hope we will choose wisely.

Riddhima Yadav is an undergraduate student at Yale University and is attending the COP21 as part of the university’s delegation.