The year 2020 was expected to see a new level of ambitions and commitments on restoring our climate and nature, but Covid-19 turned the whole world upside down. Attention shifted from the urgency of tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis to address the health and economic crisis.

Even though the unprecedented global lockdown delayed crucial action, it also reminded us that our unsustainable way of living and ever-increasing disruption of natural systems have boundlessly severe consequences. Indeed, just like pathogens, “climate change carries no passport and knows no national borders”, as former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon put it five years ago.

Women are disproportionately affected by climate change

Just as new studies show that women are more likely to bear the burden of the social and economic consequences of the pandemic, there is mounting evidence that climate change is not gender neutral either. Women around the world are disproportionately affected by climate change due to various social, cultural and economic factors. Characteristics such as levels of poverty, age, ethnicity and marginalisation in combination with gender lead to higher vulnerability for women.

In many rural economies, women have poorer access than men to land, financial and agricultural resources, education, health, decision-making structures, technology and training that would enhance their capacity to adapt to climate change.

A virtuous circle - Tackling gender inequality and climate change in the round 1

Credit: Jeff Wilson/FFI

Mortality among women during weather-related disasters is also relatively higher. For example, they are more vulnerable in cultures where women do not learn to swim or are expected to stay in the house even during floods and in risk-prone areas. In addition, UN figures indicate that in the aftermath of disasters, women are more likely than men to be displaced and to be victims of violence.

Globally, women are more likely to live in poverty and their livelihood is often highly dependent on natural resources threatened by climatic changes. Climate change is already affecting poorer subsistence communities through decrease in crop production and quality, increase in crop pests and diseases, and disruption to culture. The 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that “climate change and climate variability worsen existing poverty and exacerbate inequalities, especially for those disadvantaged by gender, age, race, class, caste, indigeneity and (dis)ability.”

Women are also more affected by drought and water shortages due to their household responsibilities. As women and girls overwhelmingly undertake the labour of gathering water, food and firewood, when droughts and extreme temperatures dry up sources of water, they have to travel longer distances to acquire these resources.

According to the World Bank, women in half the world are still denied land property rights, reducing the likelihood of compensation when climate change adversely affects their yields. On top of that, they often face obstacles when it comes to accessing credit to invest in advanced farming tools and techniques, fertiliser or drought-resistant seeds, which makes it even more difficult to achieve a successful harvest and become resilient to the changing conditions. In many places accessing and negotiating in markets to sell their crops is difficult or even impossible for women.

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Women as positive agents of change

Despite their vulnerability, women are not merely helpless victims of climate change, but are very much on the front line in the fight against it, actively participating in climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. Women and young girls lead climate and environmental movements, protect and restore nature, drive the transition to clean energy sources, and push their communities to embrace sustainability and climate-smart solutions.

A virtuous circle - Tackling gender inequality and climate change in the round 3

Credit: Anthony Ochieng/BirdLife

Due to their household responsibilities women have historically developed knowledge and skills related to water harvesting and storage, useful plant species, food preservation and rationing, natural resources management, and even dealing with disasters. This traditional knowledge, biocultural wisdom and experience plays a crucial role in promoting biodiversity conservation and developing climate-resilient livelihoods.

Studies demonstrate that enhanced participation of women in decision-making processes is essential in addressing the adverse impacts of climate change and building adaptive capacity (defined as the ability of the individual or community to adjust, modify or change its characteristics or actions to moderate potential damage, take advantage of opportunities or cope with the consequences of shock or stress). In fact, gender equality and the empowerment of women are fundamental to development, environmental sustainability and achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change has made specific provision for women’s empowerment, recognising that they are disproportionately affected. In line with this, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted a Gender Action Plan that aims to support the “full, equal and meaningful participation and leadership of women” in climate policy and action at all levels – international, national and local.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is supporting projects across the globe in which positive climate impact and gender considerations are key elements:

Improving livelihoods through female empowerment in Tajikistan

A virtuous circle - Tackling gender inequality and climate change in the round 4

Credit: Muqaddas Milikbekova

The nature reserves around Dashtijum and Childukhtaron villages in southern Tajikistan are home to two of the country’s three most valuable fruit-and-nut forests, including critically endangered endemic species. However, climate change and unsustainable management practices pose great threats to these rich ecosystems and to the livelihoods that they support.

FFI and our local partner Zam Zam are working to enhance forest biodiversity and community resilience in the face of the changing climate. As women have low socio-economic power in these communities, activities were designed to promote gender equality, considering different roles, responsibilities, needs and aspirations. Gratifyingly, the vast majority of members of the saving schemes and producer groups established to improve productivity are now women (83% and 90% respectively). Collectively, these members have been empowered to enhance product quality and achieve a higher market price. This augurs well for the communities’ ability to cope with the impact of climate change on their vital forest resources.

Building climate resilience on the shoulders of volcanoes in Nicaragua

Credit: Alison Gunn/FFI

Formed by two volcanoes in Lake Nicaragua, Ometepe Island is globally important for its diverse forest habitats, wetlands and its resident and migratory birds. In partnership with local NGOs Fundación Entre Volcanes and Biometepe, FFI has been working for years with local farmers to strengthen farming practices, reduce deforestation and diversify agriculture-based livelihoods, and help them begin to adapt to a changing climate.

FFI’s climate change vulnerability analysis highlighted a significant gender bias, with reproductive and care roles still the primary responsibility of women, while decisions related to production, as well as income generation and use, are mostly in the hands of men. The study also explored the reliance of women and their families on natural resources for their subsistence and how these have been affected by climate change.

FFI and our local partners are now working together to develop recommendations on how to diversify women’s economic activities, enhance their access to financial resources and ensure gender-responsive adaptation measures. To build resilience, women are already practising agroecological production, soil conservation, zero burning in cultivated areas, water harvesting, the use of organic fertiliser prepared from food waste, reforestation, and ensuring natural regeneration of forests.

"There is a growing body of evidence that gender equality and women’s empowered participation, alongside men, leads to more effective and sustainable conservation"
Helen Anthem Senior Technical Specialist – Gender, Livelihoods & Governance

Mainstreaming gender in climate policies and actions in Indonesia

A virtuous circle - Tackling gender inequality and climate change in the round 6

Credit: FFI

Aceh’s precious seascapes and landscapes are seriously threatened by rising atmospheric and water temperatures, sea-level rise and changing rainfall patterns, along with overexploitation of natural resources and clearance of forests and peatlands for oil palm and other plantations.

To mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and help economic development in the province, the government of Aceh is working with FFI and other partners to establish a low-emissions development strategy. Gender mainstreaming – considering the implications of policies, programmes and actions for both women and men – is a key element of this work as described in this article.

“There is a growing body of evidence that gender equality and women’s empowered participation, alongside men, leads to more effective and sustainable conservation”, explains Helen Anthem, FFI’s Senior Gender Specialist. A major achievement of this work to date is the Governor’s Decree on gender budgeting, which means the allocation of a specific budget to support gender mainstreaming. This is considered a key indicator of political commitment.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste”

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world”. A green recovery from Covid-19 is a unique opportunity to reverse the loss of nature and disruption of the climate system as well as enhancing the resilience of communities to future environmental and economic shocks.

If we ignore the climate and nature crisis that we are exacerbating day by day, climate change and biodiversity collapse may deliver even greater global shocks. The above examples of gender-responsive climate action show that we – women and men together – are capable of the necessary transformations.