To fight climate change, empower women

Members of the Annama Association collecting medicinal and aromatic plants. (Photo: UN Women Morocco)

Members of the Annama Association collecting medicinal and aromatic plants. (Photo: UN Women Morocco)

It has been called “the world’s greatest diplomatic success” and a “monumental triumph for people and planet”. The United Nations (UN) climate change deal, known as the Paris Agreement, was signed by representatives of 195 countries on Saturday, December 12, to cheering, emotional speeches, and lively social media across the world. 

The result of the largest gathering ever of world leaders, of various approaches to negotiation, including South Africa’s own Zulu tradition of indabas (pioneered at COP17 in Durban) and of two decades of efforts by the UN, the agreement is, undoubtedly, historic. 

The agreement also, vitally, begins to recognise the need to take the disproportionate effects of climate change on women into account. Gender equality is addressed in clauses on setting up the committee to implement the agreement; the approach to adaptation; taking action and capacity building; as well as in the introduction to the agreement, which states “Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights […] gender equality, the empowerment of women and intergenerational equity”.

Speaking at GLOBE International’s Annual Legislators’ Summit at the conference, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri explained the importance of having gender-responsive strategies for tackling the effects of climate change. “Women, especially in developing countries, are differentially and disproportionately affected by climate change — by extreme and erratic weather events for example — with impact on their access to and use of water, energy including renewable sources, food security and sustainable agriculture, livelihood, education, decent work opportunities and to a healthy life. All these [are] well documented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

In an address at the COP21 Charity Gala for the French National Committee, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka further emphasised the importance of both education and protection for women at risk of adversity caused by climate change: “We also know that women around the world are household managers of energy. If women are not involved in understanding how energy is a dimension of climate change, we rob ourselves of an opportunity for women to play an active role. Women need to understand when not to harvest the forest. Women also are victims of bad energy provision into households, because they inhale smoke in houses where poor energy is provided. Women are also responsible for fetching water in countries that are poor, and where the houses they live in do not have water.”

Women are important agents of change. Their contributions to farming and collectives, for example, are hugely meaningful. 

In Mali, where more than 77% of women live in rural areas, and represent 49% of the active farming population, despite having little control over resources such as land and credit, women are nonetheless responsible for 70% of the country’s food production. With support from UN Women, 13 women-led pilot units across the country are using renewable energy-powered equipment to extract, dry, grind or process fruit and local products such as mango, ginger, tamarind and hibiscus flowers, turning them into syrup, juice, jam and dry biscuits. Some grains, such as millet and fonio, are made into flour, couscous and other local foods.

The project benefits not only women, but whole communities, in some areas putting an end to the debt that is typically experienced between harvests, according to Kadidia Diawara, mayor of Mali’s rural township of Dandougou Fagala. 

Similarly, in Morocco, more than 100 women who live in eight oases in the south-eastern province of Errachidia are demonstrating the huge value that can be gained from using women’s ancestral knowledge of their areas. They use dip-irrigation methods and solar water pumps to grow medicinal and aromatic plants, which are then sold for prices typically higher than those of other crops. In only two years, this project has led to many of the women growing their incomes, opening bank accounts and achieving financial independence. 

In South Africa, UN Women, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, recently launched a digital literacy training programme for women farmers from Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. 

The programme gave 24 women farmers laptops, improving their access to information, markets, and other useful tools. “These graduates that you see in front of you here will go on to become trainers-of-trainers by January 2016,” said Ayanda Mvimbi, a UN Women programme officer in South Africa. 

The stories of these women serve as a reminder that the success of Paris is not an end in itself. Countries need to translate the agreements into tangible national commitments, starting with national adaptation plans that take gender equality and the empowerment of women into account and allocate sufficient resources to ensure effective implementation.

Women make important contributions to many of the spheres of life that are already being directly affected by climate change and, as they are proving worldwide, they are powerful agents of change in the fight against hardship caused by the effects of climate change. 

There are many heroes in the green movement, such as Vandana Shiva (who has won multiple peace prizes for her work fighting the use of harmful genetically-modified crops), Wangari Maathai (Kenyan founder of the Green Belt Movement, which to date has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya), and UN Climate Chief, Christiana Figueres. 

Yet there are many unsung heroes, too. In the executive director’s words  at the FNC Charity Gala: “Little girls are deployed, with their tiny little legs, to go to the river, to carry back big buckets, in order to quench the thirst of muscular men. This is because the water infrastructure does not adequately address the needs of society. It should not be acceptable that a little girl misses school; that she doesn’t play because she is fetching water. This agreement has to understand that when we resolve the problem of water we actually liberate little girls.”

As Fiona Harvey points out in her article on the COP21 agreement: “The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is one of the last remaining forums in the world where every country, however small, is represented on the same basis and has equal say with the biggest economies.” 

In the spirit of this, it is vital that, in our efforts to address what will likely be the defining global challenge of the next century, we take into account the people representing half of the citizens of each of those countries; that each woman, too, has an equal say. Empowering women and striving for gender equality benefits us all. It is the key to a sustainable solution. 

On announcing the signing of the agreement, French President Francois Hollande declared that this agreement would mean that each of us could stand proudly in front of our children and grandchildren, knowing that we had done the best we could to make their world a safe one. Let us make sure that we truly can stand proudly in front of our daughters and granddaughters.

For UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka’s statement following COP, please visit: