Copenhagen Must Bring Gender Justice
Marginalised women across the developing world will be hit hard by climate change – but their voices are rarely heard
Adaptation to climatic variability is perhaps the greatest challenge facing humanity in the coming decades. Two intertwined factors shape this challenge and determine how we respond. The first concerns water – the basis for human life – and the second concerns questions of social equity and gender justice. Both find little mention in the various policy documents under negotiation at Copenhagen. Yet by 2025, it is estimated that almost two-thirds of the world's population are likely to experience water stress, and for 1 billion of them, this will be severe and socially disruptive. Across the developing world, the predominant responsibility that poor rural and urban women have for domestic water collection, food security and health suggests that they will be among the most vulnerable.
Without collateral in the form of land titles or other assets in their name, women have little access to social protection measures or risk sharing mechanisms such as micro insurance, which are critical to the development of adaptive capacity. In addition, women's priorities are often overlooked when it comes to the development of innovative technologies, for example, those that help adaptation-mitigation as well as reduce their drudgery. The use of solar energy to lift water in the semi-arid region of Kutch, India, certainly enhances resilience to decreasing water availability, but is very costly and difficult to maintain, leaving women with few options when technological systems fail.
Although poor women and men are strengthening agricultural production systems through crop diversification, access to agricultural extension services remains difficult for women as they are typically not recognised as "farmers". Membership in community water user associations is usually mediated by land ownership. In Maharashtra, western India, NGOs are building the capacity of female farmers to participate in decision-making on irrigation management. While in Morocco, rural women in isolated communities of the High Atlas Mountains report that their concerns with water supplies for domestic use are overlooked in formal discussions on community water access, as men place more emphasis on the irrigation needs of crops and livestock.
Growing male out-migration will put more responsibilities on women farmers without adequate rights to productive resources. Among Mandera and Turkana pastoralists in northern Kenya, women have fewer adaptation options than men, as they often lack the freedom of mobility which men enjoy. In times of drought, men are more likely to migrate, while women remain on the land, caring for family and livestock with few resources.
In coastal Gujarat, India marginal female farmers whose land has been degraded by saline intrusion have been augmenting their livelihoods through investing in lobster fattening projects and value chains. These pilot adaptive initiatives are being scaled-up in partnership with government bodies and the private sector. Similarly elevated toilets and eco-sanitation options are priorities for rural women in flood-prone Eastern India.
Investing in innovative research towards finding solutions that are not only scalable but equally, address the complexity of inter-related systems – environmental, institutional, social – in the face of climate uncertainty is critical. It is these "10% solutions" that are often far more effective than large scale infrastructural investments for adaptation.
The National Action Plan on Climate Change in India recognises the gender dimensions of climate vulnerability. Quotas to support women's participation in decentralised governance have also recently been increased from 30% to 50%. Yet, making adaptation policies and programmes sensitive to gender does not simply mean "adding on" women. Ensuring that the voices of marginalised women are heard requires working from both the top-down and bottom-up. Global and grassroots networks and alliances are important for building awareness and strengthening learning. But will our climate decision-makers hear these voices as they draw up plans for an adaptation fund that is gender just and inclusive?