Why weren’t there more women at the climate talks?

3964028704_b8d7bcca3c_b“Could you elaborate on how women can access the respective climate funds that your organisations manage?” It was a straightforward question from a Togolese woman after a panel discussion on climate finance for small island developing states, hosted on the sidelines of last week’s UN climate conference (COP23) in Bonn. The all-male panel, consisting of representatives of finance organisations and international development ministries, wasn’t able to answer. Instead, they collectively resorted to awkward laughter and some head shaking. After being pressured by the, also male, moderator, one of the panellists muttered a soft “no…”, while the others looked away.

This exchange is a good illustration of a big problem in the climate sector: women are not being meaningfully included. Women and children, especially those from developing countries, bear the brunt of the effects of climate change; they are the ones who will have to walk further to collect water or firewood and are more likely to suffer from climate related health problems, like malaria and other infectious diseases linked to water. But they struggle to access finance to adapt their homes to the risks of climate change or to contribute to mitigation, for instance through using solar panels. If women being half of the world population isn’t enough to include them in the process, the fact that they will be affected most surely should be.

Countries have recognised that this problem requires action. As with anything that involves 196 states reaching an agreement, it took several negotiation sessions for them to come up with a plan. But, since last week, a gender action plan is now officially part of the ongoing international climate change negotiations.

It mainly focuses on educating policy makers on gender issues and how to make both national and international policy gender-responsive. That means it should be reflecting the specific needs of women and how to meet them. For instance, women in many places around the world can be the last in the power hierarchy to access water and food, so future changes in the climate are likely to affect them most.

Those most affected are being left out of the discussion
Countries will be reporting back to the UN on their experience of implementing more gender-responsive policy and will be able to share best practice and the lessons they have learned. But those women who are most affected are also the ones most likely to be absent from dialogue. If workshop attendees and the organisers are all male, it is unlikely issues of particular concern to women will be well represented.

According to a study by Carbon Brief, only 38 per cent of the delegates at this year’s negotiations were female. The UK, however, did better than most: its delegation was 67 per cent female, and the high level delegation was headed by Claire Perry MP, the climate minister.

To adjust the imbalance of women and men in delegations, the gender action plan proposes a strategy, including leadership training for women and earmarked travel funds, especially for women from grassroots, local and indigenous communities. This aims to make it easier for women to attend future negotiations and represent their respective countries.

Interestingly, some of the countries able to benefit from these funds already send the largest delegations. The top five largest delegations this year were from African nations, and none had significant female representation. That raises the question of whether the problem is really a lack of travel funds, or whether there are other reasons why women are absent. And, even if women are in the negotiations, there is no guarantee they will be properly represented in national climate policy decisions.

As it stands, the action plan is unlikely to make it easier for women back in their countries to access finance and deal with the direct effects of climate change on their lives. Just like the woman from Togo still waiting for her answer, women across the world are still waiting for real action.

[Image: Gathering Firewood by Bread for the World from Flickr Creative Commons]

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