During the opening days of the recent COP27 climate summit, one particular image went viral: the customary family photo of attending heads of state and government figures, which was called out for its visible lack of women. According to an official list published by the United Nations, of the 110 world leaders present in Egypt, only eight were women – a percentage similar to that of women leaders worldwide.
This is nothing new. Women have long been underrepresented in national delegations to UN climate talks, with their presence among them increasing only marginally over the past decade: at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, women made up 30% of the delegates, rising to 38% at last year’s COP26, according to a report by the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation.
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Even when they do attend, women tend to speak less in public at these events. Despite making up over a third of the delegations representing national governments, women accounted for only 24% of the speaking time in the plenary sessions at COP26, according to the UN’s own reporting. Figures for this year’s summit are yet to be released.
For women representing civil society at COP27, the situation was not much different. “On many occasions we did not have access to the negotiation rooms,” said Costa Rican activist Mariana Chaverri Solano, a coordinator of the NGO Latinas for Climate. “We travelled thousands of kilometres so that we could continue to be systematically excluded from decision-making spaces.”
Women’s unequal representation and a sense of exclusion continues despite studies showing their increased vulnerability to climate change and disproportionate suffering from its impacts. Research indicates that women die at higher rates in extreme weather events due to differences in access to mobility and resources. They are also in many settings more exposed to the impacts of climate change, such as drought, heatwave and flooding, as they bear a disproportionate responsibility for securing food and water supply.
Despite the inclusion of gender on the COP27 agenda, some attendees were left disappointed at a lack of progress and complained of a male-dominated environment, adding fuel to calls to bring the intersections of gender and climate change to the centre of future discussions.
Women and gender at COP27
The COP27 summit was due to see a review of the UN’s Gender Action Plan on climate change, part of the Lima Work Programme on Gender, that since COP20 in 2014 has promoted the consideration of gender in climate action and policies. Although its inclusion as an item on the agenda was celebrated, it did not advance as expected.
“The revision of the gender plans was rocky, and the desired results were not obtained,” said Jazmín Rocco Predassi, coordinator of climate policy at Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN), an Argentine NGO. Chaverri Solano was similarly underwhelmed by the summit’s results: “The agreed text contains weak language and lacks substance, and failed to provide adequate funds for the protection and empowerment of girls and women who are at the forefront of the climate fight.”
More generally, financing for climate action and, in particular, for loss and damage caused by climate change were key themes of COP27. Women were some of the most eloquent speakers on these issues, including Tanzanian president Samia Suluhu Hassan, and Barbadian prime minister Mia Mottley, who delivered one of the summit’s most lauded speeches, in which she called on developed countries to keep their promises on climate finance.
“There must be a commitment to unlock concessional funding for climate-vulnerable countries,” Mottley said, adding that there was “no way that developing countries can fight this battle” without access to such finance. For her part, Suluhu Hassan called on developed countries to fulfil their technology transfer promises and unblock financing.
Civil society representatives have recognised that agreeing on a fund for loss and damage was a historical milestone. “Now we must keep our eyes on the way it will be implemented, to make sure it has a gender and human rights angle,” said Chaverri Solano.
A loss and damage fund must have a gender and human rights angle
Beyond these mixed outcomes, there will be hopes that future editions of COP can provide a more inclusive environment at the conference itself, with some attendees reporting an uninviting environment for women. Tais Gadea Lara, a climate journalist from Argentina, echoed Chaverri Solano’s observations, highlighting her sense of discomfort: “As women we had to take an unusual level of care with our safety. During other conferences I have returned alone at 1am, but not here – I could only stay out until 10:30pm.”
The journalist said that the absence of women was evident in all the spaces of COP27: “When you go on the bus, when you enter a press conference, there are more men than women in the room.” For her, “it is to do with the country where it is being held and who presides over it.”
Gadea Lara also denounced the broader insecurity faced by women in the host nation, where 99% of women have suffered sexual harassment, and services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are almost non-existent.
Women most affected by climate change
Climate change is described by UN Women as a “threat multiplier,” a driver that exacerbates existing inequalities in fragile settings, including gender inequality. Latin America and the Caribbean are the world’s most unequal regions, and among those most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to data from the Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean, women in the region spend on average almost two thirds of their time doing unpaid work; for men, it is only one third. This includes obtaining basic resources for subsistence such as water, firewood for cooking and heating, and food.
When climate disasters arrive and impact the environment, women are forced to spend yet more of their time on these tasks, with these events leading to even greater levels of inequality and poverty. When conditions worsen, higher rates of gender-based violence have also been observed, as well as higher levels of sex trafficking.
A report by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) found increases in levels of sex trafficking following severe storms in the Asia-Pacific region, while intimate partner violence spiked during tropical storms in Latin America, in periods of drought in East Africa and during extreme weather events in the Arab States region.
Men are still leading the issues under negotiation. Women must be environmental decision-makers
Furthermore, the health of women and girls is disproportionately affected by climate change due to their limited access to health services. According to UNFPA, climate change and its impacts can lead to higher rates of miscarriages and diseases such as Zika that can cause birth defects. During climate disasters, moreover, resources are diverted towards services considered more “essential”, often at the expense of sexual and reproductive services.
Lorenza Terrazas, a specialist in international climate policy and coordinator at Red Pazinde, a Bolivian NGO, said that it is important to continue to emphasise women’s added vulnerabilities, not simply to frame them as victims – on the contrary, to show the urgency of involving them in shaping responses to climate change. “Men are still leading the issues under negotiation,” she said. “If we are to talk of equitable participation, then women must be environmental decision-makers.”
The missing steps
Although progress has been made towards recognising the unique connections between gender and climate change in recent years, something fundamental is still missing: greater presence of women, not only at the summits, but also at the table in other decision-making spaces.
“In Latin America there has been a very important feminist movement and the understanding of gender issues is very advanced,” said FARN’s Rocco Predassi. “This vision still needs to percolate into the climate agenda. It is important to work on integration, because climate change is not blind to gender.”