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We know how gender-just climate action can work

Written by Mairi Dupar, Elizabeth Tan

Hero image description: Women carrying water and supplies on a dirt road in South Sudan Image credit:Women carry water from the UNMISS base to the Protection of Civilians site, Bentiu, South Sudan. Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We know climate adaptation and mitigation programmes need to be designed intentionally to empower marginalised women and other marginalised groups. Otherwise, there are risks of eroding their rights and wellbeing. Climate action is more urgent than ever and we’ve learned a lot about what gender-just climate action can look like in practice. It’s time to scale these approaches and get better at inclusion.

At UN climate talks in Dubai on 4 December (Gender Day), H.E. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak launched the COP28 Gender-Responsive Just Transitions and Climate Action Partnership, which is a great step in the right direction. At the time of writing, 68 governments had signed on. Important evidence from our research suggests how governments can translate this pledge into meaningful action.

Community-based women leaders see climate action holistically

For the Climate and Development Knowledge Network and the Global Center on Adaptation, Mairi and colleagues put out a call for stories from local adaptation champions. They received more than 200 responses from the Global South, the majority from women and youth leaders. Mairi worked with these local champions to document what climate resilience and adaptive capacity look like from their perspectives and launched the co-authored book Stories of Resilience: Lessons from Local Adaptation Practice.

Women climate leaders are saying: we are taking a holistic approach to climate action, an all-of-person approach. The women’s group LUCOHECO in Kampala, Uganda provides a striking example. They are not just trying to clear away solid waste such as plastic bottles, which clog waterways and create dangerous floods in the slums during intense rains (a more common occurrence now the climate is changing). They are not just rolling out sack gardening and distributing seasonal vegetable seeds to women to grow flood-resistant produce to feed their families and generate income.

Through all their achievements, these women are proving that they can become economically empowered through climate-resilient, low-carbon actions. And these achievements are raising women’s own self-confidence as well as their status in their households and communities. They are also reporting tending to each other’s psychological needs in the face of climate-related losses and damages and other social harms.

They take this holistic approach because these community-based women know that having less power and status in society means that you may endure greater climate risks in the first place. And they also know that climate events have cascading impacts. It doesn’t end with the direct hit of the heatwave or intense rain. These hazards have consequences for people’s incomes and food security - and society’s spontaneous responses can often be discriminatory. There is a strong evidence base for an upswing in gender-based violence in the aftermath of weather.-related disasters, and an increase in actions that breach women’s and girls’ human rights such as early forced marriage. (We discuss this further in the SPARC report ‘Resilient Generation’ by Dupar, Lovell et al.)

Women’s groups are focusing as much on supporting mental health and eradicating gender-based violence as they are on climate or hydrology, food security or agriculture – because they know how these things are connected.

Most importantly, the Stories of Resilience are a clarion call for the defence of rights. Local climate leaders are organising to defend and promote women’s human rights, and women’s rights to access and use productive assets including land, natural resources and credit on an equal basis with men.

They are also organising to empower women in economic collectives to undertake low-carbon, climate-resilient production. Often, these efforts require policy changes and budget allocations to gain broader shifts and realisation of rights. The Stories of Resilience highlight how solidarity movements are giving community-based women strong, collective political voices.

Just transitions need empowered women and our learning can inform the way forward

One thing is clear. For too long, the majority of climate and development literature has focused on women as victims of climate change. Or, when it has talked about their agency, it has focused predominantly on their roles as consumers. For example, consumers of water or fuelwood and other energy in their unpaid care roles in the home, as we find in our report, From low carbon consumers to climate leaders.

Until recently, the conversations about just transitions to decent, safe, low-carbon climate-resilient work were dominated by voices in the Global North and male-dominated industries. In fact, the International Labour Organization (ILO) recognised early the risk of focusing on male-dominated jobs in polluting industries. There is a need for low-carbon shifts in labour markets to be gender-equitable and socially inclusive. This was finally recognised in a recent UNFCCC technical report on workforce just transitions.

It is positive that the COP28 Gender-Responsive Just Transitions and Climate Action Partnership considers both emerging and impacted job markets. This is what women climate leaders in developing countries have been saying for some time. Don’t just talk about compensating and reskilling workers being redeployed from dirty fossil fuel production, but skill up and support those who were in the unstable, insecure and informal jobs – the women producers who deserve a full place in the climate resilient world of future work, too.

How we can build and deliver on the COP28 initiative

The COP28 Gender-Responsive Just Transitions partnership has three core pillars:

  • Better quality data to support decision-making in transition planning
  • More effective flows to regions most impacted by climate change
  • Education, skills and capacity building to support individuals to benefit from transitions.

While these high-level objectives are very much to be welcomed, it is vital that women’s rights are central to the implementation of this initiative. This was a golden thread running throughout the community-based women’s Stories of Resilience. We want just transitions that recognise and realise, in full, women’s human rights, natural resource rights, land and labour rights.

Furthermore, our recent findings indicate that gender-just climate solutions can be hyper-local. It’s true that robust national policies and plans are needed to integrate gender equality into climate action – and budget must be allocated to achieve this. But we are also finding that it often requires measures like the enacting local by-laws to support women’s climate resilient economic activities, as when women waste-managers created recycled products in Malawi. There is often a need for local actors to negotiate among themselves for the gender-just implementation of existing policies – as in the women forest users’ struggle for resource access and manufacturing space in Nepal.

Furthermore, gains for women’s economic empowerment in green transitions may be precarious and easily reversed. As we find in the Stories of Resilience, securing these gains and making them more sustainable can be done via the creation and strengthening of local women’s groups, solidarity-building among local groups, and the creation of alliances between communities and research and non-governmental organisations. Mainstreaming more ambitious gender equality practices in green businesses is also key to sustainability and must involve the SMEs that dominate developing country economies.

Ultimately, what’s vital is patient, predictable funding to women-led initiatives that are working holistically across the complex of women’s and girls’ rights, capacity-building and psychosocial needs – as well as advancing their low-carbon climate-resilient work opportunities.

The Gender-Responsive Just Transitions and Climate Action Partnership marks a significant milestone but one on an existing journey. It should be seen as a launchpad to catalyse millions of local, national and transboundary actions for women’s economic empowerment in low carbon, climate-resilient transitions. It is not starting from nothing. We have rich learning to inform its objectives and we begin from a moving start.

Watch the UNFCCC official side event below