What connects gender and the environment
Women can play a vital role in the change process both when it comes to climate protection and adapting to climate change. But the reality is often still not quite like this: women and girls are particularly badly affected by the climate crisis. Is the topic of gender getting enough attention at the upcoming climate conference? Questions for Bettina Jahn from UN Women Germany.
Natural disasters do not distinguish between genders. So why are women and men affected differently by climate change?
Bettina Jahn: All crises, which therefore includes the climate crisis, exacerbate existing inequalities. A flood, for example, obviously does not distinguish between genders. But the flood and its consequences affect people to different extents depending on how well prepared they were for a catastrophe, how quickly they were warned, how effectively they were able to evacuate the area and how well they are able to recover from the consequences. And, unfortunately, women are in a much worse position by comparison in these respects.
As such, women are up to 14 times more likely than men to die in natural disasters.
This was seen, for example, with the tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2004. There were lots of reasons for women having a higher mortality rate in this case, which are based on structural inequalities: Unlike men, lots of women were unable to swim. Their traditional long and tight-fitting clothing made it more difficult for them to flee. Whilst men were generally at work at the time of the catastrophe, a greater number of women were at home and were not warned early enough. When they were trying to flee the floods, women were often responsible for children and older family members and were therefore much slower. After natural disasters, sexual and domestic violence against women increases significantly. When fleeing, women are exposed to a high risk of violence or forced prostitution.
The majority of people living in poverty in the world are women; they generally have fewer savings and less financial security to help them get through a crisis or catastrophe. Women, in particular indigenous women, often have a lifestyle which is more dependent on natural resources. If these resources become scarcer as a result of climate change, these women lose their livelihoods. The poorest people in the world and people in precarious situations, in particular women and girls, bear the primary burden of the environmental, economic and social consequences of the climate crisis.
Is it a coincidence that Fridays for Future was and is driven by young women?
I don’t think that this is a coincidence. Rather, I think this demonstrates that lots of young women want the system to change. And it is an important opportunity for women to be seen as change makers and not just as victims of the climate crisis. However, the example of these female climate activists shows how difficult it is to be heard as a young woman in the social discourse without being exposed to an onslaught of criticism and violence. Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer and other female activists experience a huge volume of online hate and sexist or derogatory comments which belittle their credibility and put them at serious risk.
The past three years have been characterised by crises: the pandemic, wars, damage to the environment. Have women’s rights taken a backwards step in these three years too?
Unfortunately, yes, they have and there are a range of reasons for this. On the one hand, crises, as I have already mentioned, are not gender-neutral and have a particularly severe effect on women. On the other hand, the topic of equality has taken a backseat in lots of instances because there were “more important things” going on. For example, it has not only been the coronavirus crisis that has affected women particularly badly. Political measures have also completely failed to take into account women’s needs and the realities of their lives.
The pandemic has led to a re-traditionalization of unpaid care work, lots of women have had to significantly reduce their paid work or have lost their jobs entirely.
Right-wing or far-right parties and groups which massively and openly restrict women’s rights have gained influence in lots of countries in the world.
Is the role of women being appropriately addressed at the upcoming COP?
Equality has played a role in climate negotiations for a number of years. Since 2012, “Gender and Climate” has been a fixed item on the COP agenda, gender is anchored in the preamble to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and, in 2017, resolutions on gender were passed in Bonn in the form of a Gender Action Plan, which can be seen as demands on the governments. However, in lots of countries, there is unfortunately still a lack of implementation of gender perspectives.
For Sharm el-Sheikh, there are already a number of events with a focus on gender and there will be an extra “Gender Day”. A group of African feminist activists has put together a range of collective demands for the COP on the leadership role of women and young people in climate processes, common law and intersectionality. We hope that these voices will be heard at the COP.
Is that also expressed in the number of female delegates? How many will there be?
Last year, at COP26, 38 percent of all national delegates were women and only ten percent of the heads of delegations, so there is definitely room for improvement there. The improvements in recent years have been very slow. In 2009, these figures were at 30 percent and 10 percent. I don’t currently have any figures on the numbers of female delegates available to me but no large steps towards parity are expected.
What role will UN Women play?
UN Women is involved in the COPs by, for example, analysing COP documents from a gender perspective in advance, supporting participants on-site, participating in panels or organising events. In addition, UN Women enables women and girls from the Global South to participate in the COP and therefore strengthens their voices.
How can women be driving forces for change in the fight against climate change? How do they differ from men?
Various surveys and studies in the USA and Europe have shown that women are more likely to believe in the human cause of climate change and are more likely to be prepared to change their behaviour. These are two fundamental prerequisites for true change. Men are more likely to believe in technical solutions for dealing with climate change. However, we have now reached a point at which technical solutions are no longer sufficient on their own and we need fundamental changes and a transformation of the system to somewhat soften the blow of the climate catastrophe. The female climate activists I have mentioned stand for this change.
But that is quite dangerous too: women are often seen as the people who will clean up and save the world. Firstly, it is not fair to make this the responsibility of women. Secondly, the female activists are faced with hate and violence. And, thirdly, that won’t work whilst leadership and decision-making positions continue to be dominated by men and masculinity. And men stand to profit the most from the existing system.
And it might sound very cliche but the statistics show that men have a larger CO2 footprint, in particular due to their diets and mobility. Unfortunately, many men continue to be socialised with a toxic, stereotypical view of masculinity, which includes eating meat and driving fast cars. One of the things our solidarity movement, #HeForShe, is about is making sure that we are all able to live our lives free from these rigid gender roles, which are ultimately damaging to everyone, including the environment.
However, it is also important that feminist climate politics is not about blaming one group and romanticising another group but about involving all people and all perspectives in generating ideas and making decisions in connection with climate change and bringing about true change.
Are women in agriculture more open to new and innovative sustainability ideas?
Firstly, one problem is that, globally, women to not have the same access to their own land and means of production at all.
According to UN data, female agriculturalists could increase their harvest yields by about 20 to 30 percent if they had the same access to resources as their male colleagues, i.e. training, financing and property rights.
This means 20 to 30 percent more food would come from the same garden or the same field and this would accordingly have an impact on hunger, health, household income and the environment as less space would need to be deforested for land. When engaging with indigenous women, it has become clear that there is absolutely no need for new, innovative sustainability ideas in agriculture: traditional agricultural methods are best suited to more challenging conditions.
How do you actually go about considering the gender perspective in climate protection projects?
In principle, this has to be about ensuring that climate protection measures consider all people, needs and realities of life and do not reinforce inequalities. In all climate measures, a thorough evaluation needs to be carried out to ascertain whether all genders will profit from the measure equally, whether the participation of women will be improved or whether the measure will lead to a change in gender-specific power dynamics and role assignments.
Currently, climate protection measures are still very firmly anchored in patriarchal ways of thinking and certain sectors are given preference. Green jobs, for example, which are being newly created in the context of the climate adjustment, are mostly being created in sectors dominated by men, for example renewable energy. In mobility policy, we need to take into account the fact that the daily journeys travelled by someone carrying out care work (largely women) involves lots of stops. Instead of just travelling from home to work and back home again, those providing care may travel between the day care centre, school, supermarket, doctor’s surgery etc. on their daily travels and this needs to be managed using public transport or on a bicycle.
In May, we gave an award to the project “EmPower – Women for Climate-Resilient Societies”, which brings together climate protection and equality work in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia to give women a voice. The project empowers women and marginalised groups to participate in decision-making processes, generates data which is specific to gender, age and diversity, improves gender perspectives in climate and catastrophe protection policy and helps women to use renewable energies.
What consequences will it have for the environment if the roles played by men and women do not change?
We cannot achieve climate justice without gender equality. As I have already mentioned, toxic masculinity is closely connected to behaviour which is harmful to the environment. If we do not overcome these gender standards and the “higher, further, faster” mentality of patriarchal, capitalist society, this will have fatal consequences for our climate.
If decision-making and leadership positions continue to be dominated by men and masculinity, we will not achieve the transformation that would be necessary to put the brakes on the climate crisis.