Global Human Rights Defence

Tracking the COP Approach to Gender

Katherine Willey
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. 

Outstanding Issues

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 

Arora-Jonsson, S. (2014). Forty years of gender research and environmental policy: Where do we stand? Women’s Studies International Forum, 47, 295–308. 

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. 

European Institute for Gender Equality. (n.d.). What is gender mainstreaming? 

Gay-Antaki, M. (2020). Feminist geographies of climate change: Negotiating gender at climate talks. Geoforum, 115, 1–10. 

International Institute for Sustainable Development. (2012). UNFCCC convenes first gender day. 

Kronsell, A. (2018). WPS and Climate Change. In S.E. Davies & J. True (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Women, Peace and Security. Oxford University Press. 

Neumayer, E., & Plumper, T. (2007). The gendered nature of natural disasters: The impact of catastrophic events on the gender gap in life expectancy, 1981–2002. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 97(3), 551-566. 

Rojas-Cheatham, A., Paredes, D. G., Griffin, S., Shah, A., & Shen, E. (2009). Looking both ways: Women’s lives at the crossroads of reproductive justice and climate justice. VAWnet. 

UNFCCC. (28 February 2013). Report of the Conference of the Parties on its eighteenth session, held in Doha from 26 November to 8 December 2012. (FCCC/CP/2012/8/Add. 3). 

UNFCCC. (12 December 2014). Decision 18/CP.20. (FCCC/CP/2014/10/Add. 3). 

UNFCCC. (29 January 2016). Report of the Conference of the Parties on its twenty-first session, held in Paris from 30 November to 13 December 2015. (FCCC/CP/2015/10/Add. 1). 

UNFCCC. (18 December 2013). Report of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation on its thirty-ninth session, held in Warsaw from 11 to 18 November 2013. (FCCC/SBI/2013/20). 

UNFCCC. (19 March 2019). Report of the Conference of the Parties on its twenty-fourth session, held in Katowice from 2 to 15 December 2018. (FCCC/CP/2018/10/Add. 1). 

UNFCCC. (21 January 2002). Report of the conference of the parties on its seventh session, held at Marrakesh from 29 October to 10 November 2001. (FCCC/CP/2001/13/Add. 4). 

UNFCCC. (27 August 2013). Report on gender composition. (FCCC/CP/2013/4). 

UNFCCC. (29 January 2016). Report of the Conference of the Parties on its twenty-first session, held in Paris from 30 November to 13 December 2015. (FCCC/CP/2015/10/Add.1). 

UNFCCC. (7 October 2020). Gender composition. (FCCC/CP/2020/3). 

UNFCCC. (31 January 2017). Report of the Conference of the Parties on its twenty-second

session, held in Marrakech from 7 to 18 November 2016. (FCCC/CP/2016/10/Add.2). 

UNFCCC. (8 February 2018). Report of the Conference of the Parties on its twenty-third session, held in Bonn from 6 to 18 November 2017. (FCCC/CP/2017/11/Add. 1). 

UNFCCC. Introduction to gender and climate change. 

UN Women. Climate change and the environment. 

Women & Gender Constituency. (2020). Our background. 

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Coordinator - Tibet Team

Mandakini graduated with honours from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. Her team analyses the human rights violations faced by Tibetans through a legal lens.

Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
Pakistan Coordinator

Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

Lukas Mitidieri
Coordinator & Head Researcher- Bangladesh

Lucas Mitidieri is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). As the GHRD Bangladesh Team Coordinator, he advocates for human rights and monitors violations across all minorities and marginalized groups in Bangladesh. Lucas believes that the fight for International Human Rights is the key to a world with better social justice and greater equality.

Nicole Hutchinson
Editorial Team Lead

Nicole has an MSc in International Development Studies with a focus on migration. She is passionate about promoting human rights and fighting poverty through advocacy and empowering human choice. Nicole believes that even the simplest social justice efforts, when properly nurtured, can bring about radical and positive change worldwide.

Gabriela Johannen
Coordinator & Head Researcher – India

Gabriela Johannen is a lawyer admitted to the German bar and holds extensive knowledge in the fields of human rights, refugee law, and international law. After working for various courts and law firms in her home country, she decided to obtain an LL.M. degree from Utrecht University where she studied Public International Law with a special focus on Human Rights. Additionally, while working as a pro-bono legal advisor for refugees, she expanded her knowledge in the fields of refugee law and migration.

Gabriela is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD India, a country, she has had a personal connection with since childhood. Her primary focus is to raise awareness for the severe human rights violations against minorities and marginalized groups that continue to occur on a daily basis in India. By emphasizing the happenings and educating the general public, she hopes to create a better world for future generations.

João Victor
Coordinator & Head Researcher – International Justice

João Victor is a young Brazilian lawyer who leads our team of International Justice and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and possesses over 5 years of experience in dealing with Human Rights and International Law issues both in Brazil and internationally, including the protection of refugees’ rights and the strengthening of accountability measures against torture crimes.

João has an extensive research engagement with subjects related to International Justice in general, and more specifically with the study of the jurisprudence of Human Rights Courts regarding the rise of populist and anti-terrorist measures taken by national governments. He is also interested in the different impacts that new technologies may provoke on the maintenance of Human Rights online, and how enforcing the due diligence rules among private technology companies might secure these rights against gross Human Rights violations.

Célinne Bodinger
Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

Angela Roncetti
Team Coordinator and Head Researcher- South America

Angela holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from Vitória Law School (FDV) in Brazil. Her research combines more than five years of experience conducting debates and studies on the rights of homeless people, the elderly, children, and refugees. Besides that, she also volunteers in a social project called Sou Diferente (I am Different in English), where she coordinates and takes part in actions aimed at the assistance and the emancipation of vulnerable groups in the cities of the metropolitan area of Espírito Santo state (Brazil).

Lina Borchardt
Team Head (Promotions)

She is currently heading the Promotions Team and University Chapter of Global Human Rights Defence. Her background is the one of European and International Law, which I am studying in The Hague. She has previously gained experience at Women´s Rights organizations in Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey over the past years.
She has been working for Global Human Rights Defence in the Netherlands since 2020. Her focus now is concentrated on the Human Rights and Minorities Film Festival and the cooperation of GHRD with students across the country.

Pedro Ivo Oliveira
Team Coordinator and Researcher

Pedro holds an extensive background in Human Rights, especially in Global Health, LGBTQ+ issues, and HIV and AIDS. He is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moreover, he successfully attended the Bilingual Summer School in Human Rights Education promoted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group. Besides, Pedro Ivo has a diversified professional background, collecting experiences in many NGOs and projects.

With outstanding leadership abilities, in 2021, Pedro Ivo was the Secretary-General of the 22nd edition of the biggest UN Model in Latin America: the MINIONU. Fluent in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Pedro Ivo is the Team Coordinator and Head Researcher of the Team Africa at Global Human Rights Defence. Hence, his focus is to empower his team from many parts of the world about the Human Rights Situation in the African continent, meanwhile having a humanized approach.

Alessandro Cosmo
GHRD Youth Ambassador
(European Union)

Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
Alessandro believes that human rights advocacy requires grass-roots initiatives where victims’ voices are amplified and not paraphrased or spoken for. He will therefore act on this agenda when representing Global Human Rights Defence domestically and abroad

Veronica Delgado
Team Coordinator and Researcher- Japan, Sri Lanka & Tibet

Veronica is a Colombian lawyer who leads our team of Japan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. She holds a master’s degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has experience in Colombian law firms. Here she represented clients before constitutional courts. She also outlined legal concepts to state entities such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman’s Office on international law issues.

Veronica has an extensive research background with subjects related to public international law. She worked as an assistant researcher for more than two years for the Externado University of Colombia. Here she undertook in-depth research on constitutional, business, and human rights law issues. She was involved with consultancy services with the Colombian Army regarding transitional justice. 

Wiktoria Walczyk
Coordinator & Head Researcher (Nepal & Indonesia)

Wiktoria Walczyk has joined GHRD in June 2020 as a legal intern. She is currently coordinator and head researcher of Team Nepal and Indonesia. She has an extensive legal knowledge concerning international human rights and is passionate about children’s and minorities’ rights. Wiktoria has obtained her LL.B. in International & European Law and she specialised in Public International Law & Human Rights at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, she is pursuing her LL.M. in International & European Law and focusing on Modern Human Rights Law specialisation at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. In order to gain an essential legal experience, Wiktoria has also joined Credit Suisse’s 2021 General Counsel Graduate First Program where she is conducting her legal training and discovering the banking world. She would like to make a significant impact when it comes to the protection of fundamental human rights around the world, especially with regard to child labour. 

Fairuz Sewbaks
Coordinator and Head Researcher

Fairuz Sewbaks holds extensive legal knowledge regarding international human rights, with a specific focus on human rights dealings taking place in continental Africa. She holds a bachelor’s degree from The Hague University in public international law and international human rights and successfully followed advanced human rights courses at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She furthermore participated in the Istanbul Summer School where she was educated about the role of epidemics and pandemics in light of human rights.


Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

Priya Lachmansingh
Coordinator and Head Researcher, Political Advisor
(Asia & America)

Priya Lachmansingh is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International & European
Law at the Hague University of Applied Science.
As GHRD’s Asia & America human rights coordinator and GHRD Political Advisor, Priya’s
prominent focus is to highlight human rights violations targeted against minority and
marginalized groups in Asia and America and to broaden GHRD reach within Dutch political
parties and as well seek domestic funding.

Jasmann Chatwal
Team Coordinator & Head Coordinator: North America

Jasmann is a political science student at Leiden University who joined GHRD in May 2021 as an intern in team Pakistan. Now, she is the team coordinator for North America and is responsible for coordinating the documentation of human rights violations in USA, Canada, and America.