Gro Harlem Brundtland

(WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s perspectives and experiences must be included in international negotiations over climate change if efforts to curb global warming are to succeed, participants said at a roundtable last week on the effects of climate change on women.

Sixty government, United Nations and civil society representatives attended the meeting on Sept. 21, which aimed to influence discussions during Monday’s gathering on climate change at the U.N. headquarters as part of the annual meeting of the general assembly.

"Climate change will increase existing inequalities," said Irene Dankelman, vice-chair of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, in her opening remarks at the roundtable. "Not only are women adversely impacted by climate change, they also contribute differently from men to its causes and its solutions."

The group highlighted women’s disproportionate vulnerability to the types of natural disasters that climate change is expected to cause as well as women’s often overlooked capacity to join mitigation efforts.

In the Indonesian villages that were worst hit by the 2004 tsunami, up to 80 percent of the victims were female, according to Oxfam International, based in Oxford, England. And during the 2003 heat wave in Europe women accounted for 70 percent of the deaths in France, which totaled almost 15,000, according to official statistics from the French government.

"During emergencies women are less likely to have access to information about assistance than men," said Lorena Aguilar, a senior gender advisor for the World Conservation Union, based in Gland, Switzerland.

But neither the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012 and aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by that date through legally binding measures, nor the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change–the first international treaty to address global warming, which entered into force in 1994–mention women or gender.

In order to reduce the high levels of female mortality during natural disasters the roundtable organizers urged governments to analyze and identify the specific risks such events pose to women, as well as gender-specific protection measures.

"Climate change policy-making has failed to adopt a gender-sensitive strategy," said Aguilar.

Warm-Up to Bali

The U.N. meeting is meant to build momentum for the annual U.N. climate change conference, taking place this year in Bali, Indonesia, from Dec. 3 to 14.

During that conference, governments are expected to begin negotiating for a new international climate change agreement that will replace the Kyoto agreement.

Scientists attribute global warming to the release of greenhouse gases by industrial processes and the burning of fossil fuels. According to the most recent predictions from the United Nations, if no action is taken to reduce the present rate of emissions worldwide temperatures will rise by 8.1 Fahrenheit degrees or more. However, no timeframe is given for those estimates.

Consequences will include more extreme weather conditions, from severe droughts to more intense hurricanes, which will undermine access to food and other resources.

Developing countries–and the world’s poorest populations–will be hardest hit by climate change, which means more women than men will be hurt because women are estimated to make up about 70 percent of the world’s poor.

The roundtable was organized by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization in New York and the Council of Women World Leaders and the Heinrich Boll Foundation North America, both in Washington, D.C.

Equity in Climate Talks

Roundtable organizers want U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and government leaders to integrate gender equality into all climate change negotiations and debates, and to ensure that women are included in decision-making at all levels.

"What is needed is a clearly stated and demonstrated political will," Ulrike Rohr, director of the Berlin-based Genanet, remarked during the roundtable.

She added that women’s groups needed to move the debate over climate change away from purely scientific and economic viewpoints, reframing it as a sustainable development issue, and in that way make it a social issue.

One example of the difference that is made when women are involved in climate change programs comes from La Masica, a village in Honduras that, unlike nearby communities, reported no deaths during Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Six months before the storm hit, a disaster agency provided gender-sensitive education on early warning systems to both men and women, which enabled the village to evacuate promptly.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization women make up the majority of the world’s agricultural laborers, depending on rainfall and fertile land for income. They also remain primarily responsible for household food production, collecting water and wood.

"Women depend on natural resources for their livelihoods," said the roundtable’s keynote speaker, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway and one of the three U.N. special envoys on climate change.

More Caretaking Pressures

Brundtland added that climate change not only threatens women’s sources of income and food, but also makes diseases associated with poor water and sanitation quality more prevalent. This in turn will increase the burden on women to take care of sick family members.

"Without secure access to and control over natural resources, women are less likely to be able to cope with permanent climate change or willing to make investments in disaster mitigation measures," said Aguilar.

For example, in 1996 the government of Costa Rica started to offer economic incentives to landowners who did not cut forests on their land in the effort to stem the greenhouse effect. However, most landowners were male and women were left out of the program. The government then decided to use fee revenues from the project to help women become landowners as well.

Participants called on local and national governments to enhance women’s control over natural resources in similar ways so that they are better able to cope with climate change.

The policy recommendations also propose that governments tap women’s specific knowledge and skills when developing mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Some climate change experts, for example, have argued that women’s experience with domesticating plant seeds and breeding food crops can help communities find new food sources and adapt to changes in climate.

The group also wants carbon-curbing technologies made more accessible to women.

For example, even though solar- or wind-powered energy sources are key to curbing climate change, such new technologies, especially in the developing world, are marketed primarily to men even though women are often the ones who determine household energy use, according to the World Conservation Union.

Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.



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