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Women's Rights, Human Rights and Climate Change

by Cate Owren


May 26, 2011

A major paradigm shift in dealing with climate change has been unfolding in the last few years largely thanks to concerted efforts by women's human rights advocates. Once a strictly "environmental" or "business" issue, climate change has been increasingly accepted as a gender equality and social justice issue by civil society organizations, UN agencies and governments from around the globe. Despite this, an ongoing struggle is underway to address both climate change and its specific gender impacts.

Until recently, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was something of an anomaly in the sustainable development policy sphere: it has been the only one to neglect to include any social dimensions, much less gendered ones. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was one of several strong policies that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which also resulted in the Rio Declaration and two other UN Conventions on Biological Diverity and to Combat Desertification. The latter three emphasized women's direct participation and leadership on these issues and safeguards against gendered vulnerabilities.

But climate change has been a political battlefield from the start with deeply contentious economic issues these became the heart of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as its 1997 Kyoto Protocol, whose commitment period is about the expire. The global community is now faced with the reality of a changing climate -- which is proving to be deeply gendered, indeed, and threatening to entrench the vulnerable poorest of the poor (70 percent of whom are women) further into poverty. A much more comprehensive view of climate change is urgently needed.

Today, climate negotiations have changed. The impact of climate change has become undeniable. The highest scientific panel in the world -- the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- emphasized that impacts would vary based on geography, age and gender. Governments such as Iceland and Finland have been outspoken in connecting the dots, and women's organizations have gained visibility as experts on climate issues. A powerful tool has been CEDAW the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women which, with great foresight, included global warming as a gendered issue.

Along with women, indigenous peoples, farmers and youth have gotten involved in climate debates. Issues of water, land tenure, biodiversity and forests all play critical parts in mapping out a comprehensive climate response framework and social issues have emerged competitively with economic ones in many discussions. In early 2009, after targeted lobbying by WEDO (Women's Environment and Development Organization) and partners, negotiators put forward more than 40 references to women, gender equality and broader social considerations in the draft text for a new global deal on climate change. Text emphasizing gender-sensitive adaptation and capacity-building, as well as the importance of women's effective participation in responding to climate change, was successfully secured. Many were retained in the final conference documents in Cancun in December 2010. (This compliation can be viewed online.)

The Cancun Agreements create the first comprehensive framework to shape a future climate change treaty. They are a victory for beginning to address climate change as a human rights and justice issue, and include an unprecedented eight references to women and gender.

But much remains at stake. Despite numerous policy mandates to move forward on climate change, a lack of political will and financial investment has left implementation lagging. We are still fighting to ensure women have a proper place at critical decision-making tables at global level, national and local levels, where it seems the mentality largely persists that, when it comes to money and science, leave it to the men.

It's going to cost billions upon billions of dollars worldwide to mitigate the damage already done to our climate. Adaptation, mitigation, finance, technology, capacity building these are essential and interlinked pieces, and women and gender issues are at the heart of every one. We'll continue to fight to make sure that progress doesn't get sidetracked.

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Cate Owren is Executive Director of WEDO, a global women's advocacy organization working to foster the interlinkages between gender equality and women's rights, sustainable development and global governance. For years in her previous position, she coordinated the organization's work on climate change policy advocacy, attending each of the UN negotiating meetings and facilitating a team of advocates from all regions of the world. She will join the WEDO team again at the upcoming climate negotiating meeting in Bonn in June 2011. Get involved on women and climate change and follow our updates from Bonn on our website, on Facebook and on Twitter @wedo_worldwide.


Recommended Resources on Gender & Climate Change:

Climate Change Connections: a resource kit on gender and climate change

WEDO's overview on gender and climate change

Cancun Agreements press statement

Gender and Climate Change Training Manual
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Also see "Watershed Women: Self Help in India" by Swapna Majumdar in the Cafe of this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Acting As If Future Generations Matter" by Carolyn Raffensperger in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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