Ecologist Special Report: Empowering women to tackle climate change

Solar Market Gardens (SMGs) are a sustainable energy solution, combining a solar-charged water pumping system with drip-irrigation that enables isolated communities to no longer be dependent on seasonal changes for their crop raising and it is women who have been driving this innovation
Women are not just a ‘tool' for social and environmental justice - they are agents of real change, and have the right to be engaged in all climate negotiations. ARTHUR WYNS reports on current moves to empower women to tackle climate change
Involving women on all levels is a necessity if we want to convert to a more sustainable future - Natalie Elwell, first-ever gender advisor to the World Resource Institute (WRI)

The empowerment of women and girls is the number one solution to global warming. This is the conclusion of the environmentalist and recent New York Times bestselling author in his book Drawdown.

By providing education for girls in countries where they are usually taken out of school prematurely to be married off, better-schooled young women get the chance to develop a better standard of living, will start families at a later stage and will, on average, only have two children compared to five children for unschooled, young brides, ultimately stablising population growth.

Empowering women, however, has far more impact on the fight against climate change than on curbing population growth.

Women worldwide are currently revolutionising their local agricultural systems; they play a lead role in shaping climate policy and are being included more equally in the climate framework of the United Nations.

In this special report, we take a look at the differet levels in which women are key in taking climate actions and the influence of empowering women to tackle climate change in specific areas such as food production, education, and policy making.


Women in rural Benin fighting climate change

It is often the people in the least developed countries that are most affected by climate change. The Sub-Saharan country of Benin is a good example. The six-month dry season in the West-African country has been steadily increasing in intensity over recent years, mainly affecting the semi-arid northern side of the land. As in many arid and semi-arid regions on the continent, intensified droughts are causing extended periods of malnutrition and famine, leading to more local conflicts.

In the Northern district of Alibori, agricultural communities are highly dependent on the rain patterns to be able to work the lands, and consequently only have six months to produce enough food for the year. With women being the primary providers in these agricultural societies, a group of 400 of them decided to take their fate in their own hands and change the way they farm the land. Under the guidance of the women-led NGO Adaska, and with the aid of both the local cooperatives and the Solar Electric Light Fund, 10 villages have implemented what they called ‘Solar Market Gardens' or SMG's.

These SMG's are a sustainable energy solution, combining a solar-charged water pumping system with drip-irrigation that enables isolated communities to no longer be dependent on seasonal changes for their crop raising. The technical innovation of SMG's lies in the combination of two technologies: using solar energy to pump water from aquifers all-year round and utilizing drip-technology to guide the water directly to the roots of the plants, using the sparse resource as efficiently as possible.

Even more importantly than being technically innovative, the Solar Market Gardens bring social innovation to how communities have thus far dealt with climate change and food insecurity. By involving the local women - who traditionally cultivate the land - in the transformation of the agricultural system, and this from conception to implementation, the community was able to reach an inclusive and sustainable solution. More than 185,000 people in the region now have access to renewable energy and stable crop production, with women driving this positive development. The project rightly won the ‘Women for Results' Climate Prize awarded by the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Involving women on all levels is a necessity if we want to convert to a more sustainable future - Natalie Elwell, first-ever gender advisor to the World Resource Institute (WRI)

Including gender in policymaking

"Involving women on all levels is a necessity if we want to convert to a more sustainable future," says Natalie Elwell, the first gender advisor ever for the World Resource Institute (WRI), one of the most prestigious Think Tanks in the world on sustainable development and climate change. In its research on sustainable practices worldwide, the WRI now consistently explores what barriers there are for different groups of people - one of which is being a woman - to get access to more sustainable solutions.

"Creating more nuanced socio-demographic analyses that help us understand in what way different groups of people are being hindered in behaving in a more sustainable manner, [this] helps us to make decisions that are better for the communities as well as for the environment," Elwell told us during her first visit of the UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn, Germany.

 "Gender-issues have a direct effect on sustainable practices: if you look at public transportation in India, for example, women are harassed so extensively and so constantly that as soon as they can get off public transport they do get off public transport. That practice, besides being disrespectful and morally wrong towards women, impacts emissions as well, with many women avoiding public transport altogether. In Brazil we see a similar phenomenon regarding women riding bikes, harassment drives them to other modes of transport."

"In changing these practices, education is key. In India and elsewhere groups have introduced pink women-only buses, but that only provided a short-term, symptomatic solution since it did not tackle the social habit of harassment. In the America, women used to be harassed more frequently as well, so we decided to educate people on how to behave in a respectful way towards women, to create a stigma around harassing women, and we have made significant progress since. A similar learning process is needed in places like India and Brazil to improve both social and environmental practices."

"In this battle, women are not just a tool for social and environmental improvements, women are agents of change, and they have the right to be engaged in this, since it affects their lives as much as any other group of people."

Gender-balance during climate negotiations

In striving towards more parity and inclusion, efforts need to be made from the most local level (as in the rural communities in northern Benin), to educational practices (as in the campaigns of institutions like WRI), to international negotiations on the highest level. Since COP21 and the Paris Agreement in 2015, the international community has included women's leadership and participation in its decision-making process. Since then, the UNFCCC has taken further steps to reach gender-balance, and this by:

-        Including targets, quotas and timeframes for women's participation in all decision-making processes

-        Committing to co-leadership or rotating leadership & creating panels that are gender-balanced

-        Follow up the progress and remaining issues regarding structural impediments to women's participation through technical reports and workshops

-        Allocating money from the UNFCCC Trust Fund for Participation to fund the participation of women delegates, with a focus on women from least-developed and small-island states

By implementing these measures, UNFCCC is at the forefront of gender parity relative to other UN bodies, and can have a major influence on international bodies and institutions that are connected to its functioning.

Moreover, these measures have also been translated to policies at the national level: countries' delegations, for example, currently need to aim for 30% presence of women in their UN assemblages and need to up this to full parity (50% presence of women) in the course of the next six years. In addition, national climate change action plans need to be gender-responsive, training and capacity-building on gender-related issues needs to be promoted financially, and representatives need to be present on every organisational level.

The trickling down of these gender-just practices and incentives from an international to a national and regional level is a promising indicator of the progressive movements worldwide that are connecting social and environmental justice to one another, something that in the near future might be as straightforward a relationship as the connection we see today between human rights, peace and democracy.

This Author

Arthur Wyns is a regular contributor to the Ecologist. He is a tropical biologist who has previously worked in Australia, Costa Rica, Austria and Belgium and is currently studying the processes that drive biodiversity in the Black Forest in Germany. Arthur writes articles on sustainable development, forest ecology, conservation biology and climate change and together with a group of young biologists he founded Lonely Creatures  - an organisation that highlights the plight of endangered species across Europe - and is an author at Climate Tracker (







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