Tracking the COP Approach to Gender
Environment & Human Rights Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence
Climate change does not affect all populations equally. It has long been argued that it has the greatest impact on the most marginalised in global society and on those who have had the least hand in creating the problem. This assertion also applies to women. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and UN Women give a number of reasons for this. For example, in some countries, women are more reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods, meaning that global warming and subsequent natural disasters could cut off vital sources of income. Women also generally lack access to certain resources and are restricted in their ability to respond to natural disasters, resulting in greater numbers of women experiencing sexual violence or dying in the immediate aftermath of extreme events (Neumayer and Plumper, 2007; Rojas-Cheatham at al., 2009). Furthermore, political power imbalances often shut women out of vital policy making spaces, preventing their agency in contributing to solutions and leading to their specific needs being overlooked. Critics also argue that women’s position in society gives them greater insight into possible policy solutions and ignorance of this will limit the effectiveness of the outcomes of international climate action.
The acknowledgement of this inequality has led to an increasing focus on gender issues at UN climate negotiations, known as the ‘Conference of Parties’ (COP). Despite this, the inclusion of women and their concerns has remained largely superficial. It has so far relied on simplified presentations of women’s issues, neglecting their diverse range of experiences. Past agreements have placed more emphasis on the number of women involved in climate negotiations rather than on more substantive outcomes, such as gender sensitive strategies to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. These issues have been heightened by the structure of the COP system and barriers to accessibility faced by women from certain backgrounds. Ultimately gender remains an ‘add-on’ issue, rather than something which is meaningfully integrated throughout discussions.
This article will present a brief history of women’s involvement at COP, outline the main issues and challenges and will conclude with recommendations for ensuring a more inclusive approach to climate negotiations.
History of Inclusion
Attention to gender can be traced back to the very beginning of UN climate negotiations in 1992. However, the first substantial gain was made with the passing of decision 36/CP.7 in 2001 in Marrakech, which encouraged more attention on the gender balance within climate decision making structures. Similar decisions were made at Doha (UNFCCC, 2013), Warsaw (UNFCCC, 2013), Lima (UNFCCC, 2014), Paris (UNFCCC, 2016), Marrakech (UNFCCC, 2017) and Katowice (UNFCCC, 2019). Decision 23/CP. 18 at Doha for instance underlined the importance of “balanced representation” in the pursuit of “gender responsive climate policy” (UNFCCC, 2013, p. 47). This was to be achieved by ensuring greater representation of women within the UNFCCC secretariat and delegations to COP. This general sentiment is echoed throughout the final agreements of conferences listed above. The final agreement reached at Katowice also repeatedly mentioned the importance of considering gender balance in other policy decisions, such as the creation of new working groups (UNFCCC, 2019, p. 10). In summary, COP final agreements have consistently called for greater gender balance within both bureaucratic structures and party delegations in the hope that it will produce more gender inclusive outcomes.
COP20 in Lima saw the introduction of the ‘Lima Work Programme on Gender’ which acknowledged the importance of “gender sensitive” (UNFCCC, 2014, p. 35) climate policy. This was followed by the adoption of the ‘Gender Action Plan’ in 2017 which promoted “mainstreaming a gender perspective” (UNFCCC, 2017, p. 13) throughout future climate responses. The 2015 Paris Agreement was also significant as the preamble explicitly addressed the need to “promote and consider” women’s “equality” and “empowerment” (UNFCCC, 2016, p. 2) in the implementation of climate policy. Since then, both the Lima programme and the action plan have been extended and have guided subsequent negotiations and agreements.
This progress can partly be attributed to the increasing involvement of women in the negotiations through the Women & Gender Constituency, which was established in 2009 and formalised in 2011 (Gay-Antaki, 2020). The role of constituencies is to group together and represent non-state interests during the conferences, giving a platform to key stakeholders such as indigenous people, trade unions and young people (Women & Gender Constituency, 2020). They also have formal rights to speak during key meetings and can build relationships with the state delegations ultimately responsible for negotiating the final text of the agreement. In the case of the Women & Gender Constituency, their goal is to help their members influence the negotiations through interventions, connections to the UNFCCC secretariat and the organisation of workshops and events (Gay-Antaki, 2020), including the annual ‘Gender Day,’ first held in 2012 (ISSD, 2012). Such actions allow women’s civil society groups to advocate for greater attention to issues such as gender balance, equality and gender sensitive adaptation strategies to be included in final agreements (Gay-Antaki, 2020).
Therefore, on paper, COPs over the past 30 years have become increasingly gender inclusive and responsive to the concerns of women, incorporating key provisions aimed at tackling the unjust impacts of climate change.
Despite this progress, many scholars and commentators have argued that these measures simply do not go far enough and that current efforts to include gender considerations in climate policy remain surface-level.
One of the principal criticisms is that recent efforts have been too focused on the number of women present at the conference, in both the UNFCCC secretariat and the state party delegations. As previously discussed, concerns about the representation of women in both the UNFCCC secretariat and party delegations have dominated attention to gender inequality, with multiple decisions dedicated to increasing the percentage of women involved at COP. While it is still an issue, gender balance has shown signs of improvement in recent years with 40% of party delegates at COP25 being women, compared to 29.4% at COP18 (UNFCCC, 2020; UNFCCC, 2013) . Unfortunately similar progress cannot be seen in balancing the gender composition of delegation leadership, as just 27% of the heads and deputy heads of delegations to COP25 were female (UNFCCC, 2020).
Although ensuring women are represented at the conferences is undoubtedly important, some argue that too much emphasis on this issue is problematic and may give false illusions of inclusion. This is because such an emphasis is built on the assumption that women are a homogenous group, with identical concerns, regardless of other identity aspects such as race, geographical background, economic capacity or being a member of an indigenous group. This is partly because the focus on composition has turned gender inclusion into a “technocratic exercise” (Arora-Jonsson, 2014, p. 301), a case of ticking boxes rather than a more meaningful look at exactly how gender impacts different individuals’ experience of climate change. As a result, attempts to ‘mainstream’ gender throughout policy have been undermined, despite this being one of the main goals of the Lima Work Programme. Genuine gender mainstreaming entails integrating gender concerns throughout the policy process, in the “preparation, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation” (European Institute for Gender Equality), thus going beyond simply adding women and expecting outcomes to change and improve.
The discussions above indicate that gender remains an add-on issue, rather one of the top priorities for delegations. This has forced women active at the negotiations to find a “unitary voice” (Gay-Antaki, 2020, p. 6) if they wish their concerns to be heard. However, attempts to find this voice have reinforced existing power dynamics as it remains overwhelmingly defined and dominated by those with the most influence and resources, namely white women from the Global North.
This is in turn reinforced by the structure of COPs which privileges certain groups and methods of expression. Negotiations usually last around two weeks, during which an extremely broad range of topics need to be addressed. The format also requires highly skilled negotiators with extensive UN experience. This has an impact on both state and non-state attempts to meaningfully and inclusively address gender. First, not all states have the capacity to send large delegations which means they have to ruthlessly prioritise the issues they work on, with more attention being given to financial and business concerns, at the expense of gender concerns. The countries which can afford to send extensive delegations and multiple negotiators experienced with the UN system are historically those from the Global North. As a result, gender concerns from the Global South are less likely to play a significant role in negotiations, underlining existing inequalities (Gay-Antaki, 2020).
Similar dynamics can be found in non-state participation. Constituencies are given just three minutes each to deliver interventions during plenary negotiations, neglecting meaningful discussion and presenting women as a homogenous group with homogenous concerns. It also means that the Women & Gender Constituency effectively controls access to the debate, again silencing certain perspectives. Miriam Gay-Antaki (2020), for instance, found that the constituency largely relies on stereotypes of the ‘average third world woman’ to “gain sympathy” (p. 6) for the plight of women dealing with the effects of climate change. While this has been helpful in the initial inclusion of women in the debate, continued focus on this narrative stifles meaningful empowerment and mainstreaming. This narrative presents women as merely victims and recipients of climate policy, rather than meaningful agents and changemakers who can contribute to more effective, gender-responsive solutions.
Such an emphasis on victimhood and vulnerability also neglects the role of deeply rooted power structures which produce these inequalities. Without dismantling these power structures, integration of gender concerns into climate policy will remain surface level as they will continue to undermine any future progress. For instance, lower education levels may force women to rely on livelihoods more sensitive to climate change, such as subsistence farming (Kronsell, 2019). As ecosystems change, such sources of food and income become more precarious. UN Women also find that such situations result in women having to take on additional domestic and care tasks. In addition, prevailing gender norms may mean that some women never learn to swim so are more likely to die during extreme weather events. These examples suggest that significant shifts in societal dynamics are needed in order to meaningfully mitigate the unequal effects of climate change on women (Djoudi et al., 2016). However, the importance of addressing these power relations rarely takes centre stage at COP negotiations as politically sensitive issues such as broader societal gender equality are brushed over in favour of simplified narratives. While it can be argued that this is strategically useful for ensuring the inclusion of gender in final agreements, it limits the effectiveness of measures and stifles the systemic change ultimately needed to improve the lives of women and mitigate the impact of climate change.
Conclusion & Recommendations
In summary, while COP negotiations have become increasingly sensitive to the impacts of climate change on women, meaningful action remains limited. A focus on the number of women involved in negotiations has diverted attention from the need for gender responsive policy solutions. Simply adding women will not produce these outcomes. Furthermore, greater gender balance is a hollow victory if it perpetuates the idea that all women experience the impacts of climate change in the same way. While gender is certainly a contributing factor, it is by no means the only one or even the most significant. Regarding women as a homogenous group ultimately privileges certain, already influential perspectives while silencing others. If the gender box is considered ticked by the inclusion of a predominately white, western perspective, other views will not be actively sought out, reinforcing inequalities.
The intensiveness and inaccessibility of COPs also needs to be examined. Its current, two week, intensive format means that gender is constructed as an additional issue rather than something which needs to be considered in all aspects of the final agreement, from mitigation to adaptation. A shift to more genuine inclusion of civil society groups throughout negotiations and final agreements would allow a broader range of voices to be included and allow the issue to receive greater attention. This expansion of perspective would ultimately make climate policy more inclusive and responsive to the needs of women from various geographical and socio-economic backgrounds.
Finally, there needs to be greater awareness of the ways in which broader deep rooted societal gender inequality contributes to women’s differing experiences of the consequences of climate change. These are not separate issues. Trying to mitigate the impact of climate change for women without tackling the power structures which cause inequalities will limit the ability of future COPs outcomes to adequately address the gendered consequences of climate change.
The shifts of focus outlined above would facilitate greater gender mainstreaming and ultimately a more genuinely inclusive COP.
If you found this article interesting, you may also enjoy the rest of this series about inclusion at COP:
Climate Change Induced Migration, Conceptual and Legal Overview. An Update in the Light of COP26.
The Inclusion of Indigenous Peoples at UN Climate Change Conferences – A View at The History and Present
Sources & Further Reading
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Djoudi, H., Locatelli, B., Vaast, C., Asher, K., Brockhaus, M., & Basnett Sijapati, B. (2016). Beyond dichotomies: Gender and intersecting inequalities in climate change studies. Ambio, 45(3), 248–262. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-016-0825-2
European Institute for Gender Equality. (n.d.). What is gender mainstreaming? https://eige.europa.eu/gender-mainstreaming/what-is-gender-mainstreaming
Gay-Antaki, M. (2020). Feminist geographies of climate change: Negotiating gender at climate talks. Geoforum, 115, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2020.06.012
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