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Global Ideas

Giving women a voice in climate debate

Whether it’s floods, droughts or even food shortages, women bear the brunt of climate change. Yet it's men who steer global climate policy. What needs to change for women to be a driving force at climate talks?

The UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009 was billed as one of the most important summits of its kind: stakeholders were expected to discuss the Kyoto Protocol, and how to extend it. Judie Roy, a politician from Haiti who worked for the country’s environment ministry at the time, wanted to attend the conference. But she was informed that there simply wasn’t enough money for her to join Haiti’s small delegation.

That inspired Judie Roy to apply for funding for female delegates, so she turned to an organization called Women’s Environment & Development Organization, or WEDO for help. Even though those grants paved the way for Judie and other women to join the Copenhagen talks, women are still a minority at global climate conferences.

Women still in the minority

And the numbers prove the point: just one third of the world’s climate delegates are female, and only one in five delegations is led by a woman. And that percentage has barely risen over the past few decades.

Johnannes Kruse is a PhD student at the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS) in Germany and has been studying the lack of female participation at UN climate conferences.During his research, he noticed that the more a country is affected by climate change, the fewer women there are in its delegation at United Nations climate talks.

Johannes Kruse researches the participation of women in climate policy (Foto: Wolfgang Zimmerman)

Johannes Kruse researches the participation of women in climate policy

"The underrepresentation of women in many delegations actually mirrors the situation on a national level," says Kruse. "Especially with larger countries, the delegations include representatives from various ministries, research institutes, agencies and universities. When women are already underrepresented in those national institutions, it makes it harder to put together a balanced delegation."

What’s more, some countries simply don’t have the resources to expand their representation at big climate conferences.

"While industrialized countries and emerging nations like Germany or China can afford to send big delegations to talks, others have to keep their delegations small. And that lowers the possibility that women are represented," says Kruse.

Women hit hardest by climate change

But studies have proven that in fact women are more likely to be affected by climate change than men. Since women in most countries are responsible for feeding and caring for their families, they are more directly affected by droughts and water shortages than men. And, statistics show that more women perish in environmental disasters than men, another consequence of climate change.

But, women aren’t just victims of climate change. Ulrike Röhr, who co-founded the organization GenderCC - Women for Climate Justice that fights for women’s voices to be heard at UN climate conferences, believes women can be more effective in taking on issues like climate change.

"All the studies confirm that women have a significantly greater sense of risk, they are far more cautious and dedicated when it comes to the environment, and they tend to change their lifestyles to adapt instead of choosing technical solutions," she says. Röhr believes that women could have a very positive influence on climate negotiations.

'Fair representation for all'

Bridget Burns, who coordinates WEDO’s funding program for female delegates, also believes international leaders will only reach a global climate agreement with the help of women. "The world is increasingly moving towards a climate catastrophe, but at the same time, the UN negotiations have come to a standstill," she says. "We need a major rethink, and for that we need fair representation for all."

That is why WEDO has been supporting women in developing countries since 2009. Their participants receive financial support plus training on how to argue well and make their voices heard at the negotiating table.

"We female delegates felt like we were all in this together - it didn’t matter which country we come from," says Judie Roy, referring to her first ever UN climate conference that she attended in 2009 thanks to Bridget Burns’ organization. Judie has attended nearly every UN climate conference since, and in 2011, she was nominated to the Technology Executive Committee as the representative of Least Developed Countries, a committee with only one other female member.

Raising female participation

Initiatives like the WEDO fund can only be a part of the solution, though - the organization has only been able to support 28 women since 2009. Bridget Burns is fighting for more female representation on several other levels, too.

Johannes Kruse believes there needs to be greater awareness on how climate change affects women. "That’s where civil society groups play an important role because they can continue to remind the negotiating parties that women are underrepresented."

Slowly but surely, says Kruse, they have succeeded in doing that. At the last major climate summit in Doha in 2012, delegates agreed that women and men must be granted equal participation in the fight against climate change.

And in September, the International Women’s Earth & Climate Summit in New York brought together 100 women from various sectors and organizations to discuss gender equality.

Now, all eyes are on the next mega UN climate summit in Warsaw in November to see just how many women will actually be involved in the influential negotiations.

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