Gender – a forgotten element

Fatma Denton and Jyoti Parikh outline ways in which they consider the issue of gender should be mainstreamed into the climate debate.

Fatma Denton is a policy analyst and is projects coordinator for the Energy Programme at Enda Tiers Monde in Dakar, Senegal. Jyoti Parikh is a senior professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Mumbai, India.

Human activities are having an impact on the composition of the atmosphere. The natural background greenhouse effect is gradually becoming the greenhouse problem.

It has been estimated that if current trends continue unabated, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will reach double the pre-industrial level by the year 2050. Physical impacts such as rising sea levels will dramatically alter the natural balance of local and global ecosystems and will infringe on human settlements.

Consequently, vulnerable groups such as poor women and men will be faced with problems such as food insecurity, loss of livelihood and hardship due to environmental degradation, all of which leads to displacement and a whole host of potentially devastating economic and social consequences.

Most developing countries, especially the small island states and those in Africa and South Asia, have few resources to contend with these impacts. Agriculture, as a particular example, will be seriously affected as these nations, largely characterized by their vulnerability, often weak institutional capacity and precarious financial situations, attempt to grapple with the increasing problems of climate change.

As an illustration of limited capacity, one can review the recent experience of Mozambique in which extensive floods left hundreds of thousands of citizens homeless and destroyed much of the local infrastructure.

How can we ensure that the most vulnerable groups, and poor women fall well within this category, develop the capacity to respond effectively to the threat of climate change?

Initially, attempts to link gender and climate change may seem rather far-fetched, especially for the sceptic. Publications on the linkages between gender and climate change have been few. Climate change has largely been conceived as a scientific process. The human aspect remains largely unanalyzed. Nations stand divided on the very principles of climate change. Within the maze of fragile consensus and deep-rooted divergence, addressing gender disparities in an environment where the very notion of gender remains alien is a huge challenge.

Proponents of sustainable development have been lobbying hard to ensure that the sustainability component of the climate negotiating process does not remain only a commitment on paper. Ensuring that key issues such as poverty, adaptation and equity are given a primary role within climate policy is of equal importance. If one analyses the issues from the angles of poverty, vulnerability, environmental resource management, equity or sustainability the links between gender and climate become inherently obvious.

© Sarah Granich/TIEMPO

Raising the visibility of gender issues at COP-8 was immensely crucial in order to ensure gender issues are mainstreamed into the debate. A number of key strategic decisions on climate change and its policies are reached at different Conference of the Parties meetings. It is important, therefore, to ensure that the gender component is given relevant attention and that poor women and men do not become the big losers within the wide range of stakeholders and competing interests.

What is needed to mainstream gender in the world’s response to the climate problem?

In the case of vulnerability analysis, more gender-disaggregated research is required to shed more light on the varying levels of vulnerability and adaptive capacity within different social groups.

Adaptation to climate change or, indeed, climate variability is dependent on issues such as wealth, technological power and access to information, all of which are major problem areas for women. Resilience or vulnerability to climate change will be largely dependent on the adaptive capacity of the different stakeholders, their social and environmental context, and their ability to draw on one or all of the above components.

It is not sufficient to say that the effects of climate change will be devastating for both poor women and men. What is needed is an inventory of vulnerability to distinguish the various coping mechanisms of both groups. Also, ways are needed for ensuring and evaluating that potential economic or capacity-building spin-offs from adaptation projects are not enjoyed by one group only. Women will likely face the large burden of adaptation despite their insignificant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

If the climate change problem requires a reduction in the use of fossil fuels, then various stakeholders are required to play a key role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Yet poor women are rarely engaged in this process even though many are faced with dire problems relating to indoor air pollution and bear the huge health burdens that are a result of high incidences in bronchitis, emphysema, miscarriages and other health problems.

Projects on potential renewable energy options, for example, should not leave women yet again on the margins of decision-making. Women have the right to be involved. They have the right to choose between traditional fuels, petroleum products or renewable energy. Appropriate technologies must be found that take into account the specific socio-economic realities of different rural areas. This should reduce women’s workload, free up their time and release the potential for them to become, for example, rural micro- or macro-entrepreneurs. Women are increasingly involved in income generating activities such as agriculture and the food-processing industry.

An increasing number of women depend on forest resources for their livelihood. Forest products also serve as a source of nutritional and food supplement, thus providing alternative nutrients, minerals and vitamins to the usual staple foods. Land clearance for agriculture and commercial purposes is causing deforestation, contributing to the greenhouse problem as well as making access to forestry products difficult and placing women under increasing strain as they have to trek further and further. The Developing Countries Fund could target women and men in reducing deforestation, promoting cleaner biomass projects and assisting poorer households to reach more sustainable options.

The development literature is prolific with references, indicators and figures that clearly point to the increase of poor households headed by women. However, empirical findings that clearly substantiate that poor women are poor simply because they are women are few and far between.

Nonetheless, it is true that women are more likely to be affected by poverty and vulnerability. This is due to power dynamics within the household and the gender division of labour. It is worth noting that men are just as likely to be made redundant in the face of growing economic austerity.

Climate change is often perceived as a result of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. Yet there are inherent inequities since three-quarters of the world’s poor are faced with energy poverty whilst the remainder basks in over-consumption and unsustainable lifestyles. Due to the high dependency of biomass as the main fuel in most developing countries, women, who are the primary end-users, and children are at the receiving end of energy shortages and inefficiency.

A sustainable response to climate change is about injecting social equity within climate policy so that vulnerable people are not worse off as a result of environmental degradation. Assessing the degree of vulnerability of poorer communities is essential to addressing the stark asymmetries in the climate issue.

Further information
Fatma Denton, Africa Information Centre, 56 George Street, Balsall Heath, Birmingham B12 9RT, UK. Fax: +44-121-2491296. Email: Web:
Jyoti Parikh, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Gen. Vaidya Marg, Goregaon East, Mumbai 400 065, India. Fax: +91-22-8402752. Email: Web: