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Gender, Climate and Security in Latin America and the Caribbean: From Diagnostics to Solutions

The evidence base on the relationship between climate change and security in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has expanded over the past two years. Recent research has shown that a wide variety of phenomena—from extreme weather events in the Caribbean, to soil erosion in Central America, to changing rainfall patterns in the Amazon basin, to melting glaciers in the Andes—multiply risks around water, food and energy security for millions of people.

These impacts will have a high price, around USD $100 billion annually according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). But the economic damage is just one part of the equation: climate change impacts in LAC, a region already marked by high rates of violence and criminal activity, will also lead to greater uncertainty, more widespread human suffering, and sharpened inequalities—including those related to gender.  

Unequal impacts

Recent research shows that the stark socioeconomic inequality in LAC influences the links between climate and security in complex ways. Gender remains one of the least explored dimensions, despite indications that it is a key  lens for understanding climate security risks in the region.

A disproportionate number of women work in the informal economy, which makes them far more vulnerable to economic and other crises.

LAC societies are marked by rampant gender discrimination, unequal access to public services, persistent pay gaps and lagging political participation by women. Statistics help paint the picture. More than 1 in 4 households in LAC are headed by women—the highest rate anywhere in the world. A disproportionate number of women work in the informal economy, which makes them far more vulnerable to economic and other crises. Women's representation in politics varies widely across the region; women constitute over 40% of parliament in in four countries (Bolivia, Mexico, Ecuador and Nicaragua), whereas women make up less than 20% of the parliament in many others. And Brazil, the largest economy in the region, is ranked 140th (of 193) in terms of women's political representation.

The LAC region also has the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world: just the six countries-—Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, El Salvador, and Bolivia—account for 81% of cases globally. These rates, too, are soaring as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across the region. These patterns of inequality and discrimination make LAC women especially vulnerable to the health, economic, cultural and security disruptions caused or magnified by climate change. This applies to both rural and urban settings.

In rural parts of LAC, women's livelihoods rely heavily on local natural resources, so climate change is making it more challenging for them to achieve and maintain water and food security. Indigenous women are especially at risk, even as they engage in innovations in irrigation and agroforestry. For instance, networks of indigenous women in the Amazon have organized international meetings to brainstorm ways in which they can help guarantee forest conservation and food security for their communities, for instance by preserving seed stocks.

Women's inadequate access to land also makes them especially vulnerable to climate change impacts such as soil erosion or disasters in the shape of floods and droughts. Of the approximately 300 million people living in Latin America and the Caribbean, some 58 million are in rural areas, but only 30% of rural women own agricultural land. In addition, a large portion—approximately 40%—of women in rural areas in the LAC region engage in unpaid labour. This means that economic crises tend to him them harder, since they face greater obstacles in finding formal work and new sources of income. Unfortunately, however, only around 5% of these women have access to technical assistance for activities such as agriculture and ranching. As problems such as soil erosion and loss of nutrients, vulnerability to floods and droughts and salinization intensify, women throughout the region are left with fewer means to address those changes. 

The security risks facing women in urban and peri-urban settings across the LAC region are somewhat different. Cities in LAC have been designed predominantly by men, for men. This means that women have far less access to the spaces, resources, market opportunities, and political participation in urban settings. This has implications for their security. For instance, women and girls suffer gender-based violence not only inside their homes, but also in poorly illuminated areas of the cities. Because women frequently have less access to resources that help people endure disasters, such as food and shelter, they are particularly vulnerable when torrential rains, mudslides, heat waves and water crises beset cities. 

Moreover, due to cultural constructs, women in the LAC region are often discouraged from acquiring coping strategies and skills that could be lifesaving during disasters, such as learning how to swim or drive. It’s not just the disasters either: LAC women are disproportionately affected by "creeping changes" associated with climate change, such as sea-level rise and gradual soil erosion, in part because they have less secure land tenure and more restricted access to economic subsidies and other incentives. 

Women, Leadership, and Adaptation

At the same time, women play an essential role in addressing climate change. While discrimination, gender norms and power dynamics can reduce women’s capacity to respond to climate change, there are also encouraging examples of how women are at the forefront of responses to climate risks. At the local level, LAC women are actively seeking climate adaptation paths and have been instrumental in making indigenous knowledge centre stage.  For example, in the Apurímac region of south-central Peru, where climate change has been threatening food security, women have drawn on ancestral knowledge to detect climate change impacts based on the changing growth and behavioural patterns of local plants and animals. In addition, they have altered planting schedules, tried new seed types, and diversified their cultivars to respond to those shifts,

Young women from LAC have recently emerged as climate leaders, calling for solutions to important problems such as deforestation. They were among the organisers of the late 2019 climate strikes, where protestors called for political leaders to respond to the forest fires ravaging the region. There have also been improvements on the normative level. In the framework of the UNFCCC’s COP20 negotiations in 2014, the Lima Work Programme on Gender issued a statement on the need for gender-sensitive climate policies and initiatives. This broad engagement by, and attention to, women in the context of climate action indicates that there are many opportunities for meaningful participation of and leadership by women.

Responses are needed at the local and national levels, but cooperation can also play a role in curbing the gender-specific effects of climate security risks in LAC. A few countries, such as Peru and Mexico, have already integrated gender into policy instruments and international climate commitments, including the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) submitted to the UNFCCC under the Paris Agreement.

The Way Forward

Yet more is needed. Gender analysis must be incorporated into policy responses at all levels, identifying and addressing the concerns and needs of different groups, including indigenous, LGBTI+, mothers, and informal labourers, both in rural and urban areas. Gender-focused public policies for climate change adaptation are needed, as is regional cooperation on this issue.  

One strategic entry point for addressing these challenges is the UN Women, Peace and Security agenda. Starting in 2000, with the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, this agenda has guided the UN system's work on the promotion of gender equality and women's participation, protection and rights across the conflict cycle, from conflict and violence prevention through post-conflict reconstruction. Now there are rising calls for this agenda to recognize climate change "as a security issue in terms of both immediate and slow effects on women’s lives”. National Action Plans (NAPs), which detail how countries plan to fulfil the requirements of this agenda, represent a valuable space for addressing the gender dimensions of climate security risks. 

So far, only six countries in the region—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and Paraguay—have launched their NAPs. Most of them are heavily focused on actions taken abroad, such as deployments to UN peacekeeping missions. This is all good, but more action is needed at home as well, for instance by boosting programs against sexual and gender-based violence and enhancing the role of women in the security sector, including in positions of decision-making. Through enhanced international support, knowledge-sharing and cooperation, all the LAC states should work together to recognize and better address the ways in which climate reinforces security risks in the region.