Main page content

Global stories from the nexus of gender and climate change vulnerability


Developing countries are in a pitched fight against the effects of climate change, and women, playing prominent roles in agriculture and household resource collection, are “at the front lines in the battle,” writes UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, in a new report.

Intended as an update to a 2008 manual on gender and climate change, Roots for the Future is a major survey of gender and climate policy and programming around the world by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, working under the auspices of the Global Gender and Climate Alliance and with support from the Government of Finland.

Lead authors Lorena Aguilar, Maragaux Granat, and Cate Owen provide tools, examples, and recommendations to ensure that women are not further marginalized by climate change and indeed policymakers are able to tap into their unique perspectives and potential to address climate problems. They present 35 case studies, from the subnational to the regional levels, of innovative projects that are successfully blending environmental adaptation with concerns about gender equity.

Social Engineers and Bamboo Bikes

The examples featured range from sustainable energy initiatives and greener industrial production methods to water management and agriculture.

Several projects use an integrated approach that focuses not only on reaching out to women but men and youth. A coastal resource management project for a number of Pacific island countries by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development is taking on the ingrained notion that men should control land and resources in the Federated States of Micronesia. This keeps women on the outskirts of decision-making processes and limits the ability for them to voice their needs and share their experiences. The project promotes the role of women in agricultural ownership and actively encourages dialogue between the genders to share knowledge and develop effective strategies for dealing with marine life protection and food security.

Technology can play a key role in reducing the vulnerability of women by providing alternatives to the unsustainable and harmful cookstoves used by women in certain areas. In Cambodia, for instance, the French NGO Groupe Energies Renouvelables, Environment, et Solidarités employed female entrepreneurs to help distribute 3 million clean cookstoves that ultimately benefited more than 800,000 users. The 10-year initiative that ended in 2013 resulted in less deforestation, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and increased household productivity.

Women are also playing a central role in the development of solar technology in rural villages. The United Nations Development Program’s Global Environment Facility Small Grants Program and Barefoot College teamed up in 2008 to support “Women Solar Engineers” projects in Africa and Asia. The projects focus on disseminating technologies to remote areas and training women beneficiaries to manage them.

Understanding the duality of vulnerability and potential is crucial

The project has led to the empowerment of women as technology entrepreneurs and the establishment of local village solar committees in 18 countries across Asia, the Pacific, and Africa. More than 70 women have been trained as “social engineers,” using their training in solar technology to impact society by electrifying hospitals, schools, administrative offices, community centers, food processing plants, and houses in 53 villages. This electrification has led to greater economic opportunity for women, as they can now work after dark and spend less money on fuel; improved health; expanded educational opportunities; and reduced carbon emissions, since the use of kerosene and forest wood has diminished.

In Southeast Asia, the Center for People and Forests has helped confront traditional gender roles and discriminatory socio-cultural practices around forest management. REDD+ is a collaborative initiative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Development Program, and the United Nations Environment Program that pays groups and countries for preserving forest areas. In their outreach to local communities and leaders to encourage their engagement with REDD+, the Center for People and Forests promotes the involvement of women and uses “experimental learning methods,” like puppet shows and street theater, to reach as wide an audience as possible. A focus on gender has helped alleviate information asymmetries for women and resulted in more engagement in conservation and benefits from REDD+ payouts.

In Bangladesh, ActionAid is bringing together groups of women to evaluate their vulnerability to flooding, cyclones, drought, and water salinization, and create plans to adapt and mitigate. A central component of the project is the empowerment of women to express their needs and find solutions to increase their resilience in these situations. This is done through risk assessments completed by local groups led by and comprised of women in which they share information and experiences related to climate change. Through the initiative’s pilot projects, 110 cookstoves were distributed, 10 temporary dams were constructed to preserve freshwater, and a raised cluster village was constructed for landless families in flood-prone areas. ActionAid is using the successes of these pilot projects to bring similar practices to other parts of the country.

In Ghana, Bernice Dapaah took notice of her country’s severe traffic congestion, low youth employment, poverty, and deforestation and started an initiative that produces and distributes bamboo bicycles with support from the Global Environment Facility. Thus far she has enlisted 10 local women to farm bamboo, which is fast-growing and contributes to forest regeneration since the uncut bamboo sequesters carbon and helps prevent soil erosion, and 45 female bike assemblers in three communities. Many women have become customers too, since the bicycles are lightweight compared to traditional steel frames, yet can withstand the weight of farm loads and the rough terrain of Ghana’s rural areas.

“Forward-Looking Testimony”

Roots for the Future is a “celebration of progress and results achieved,” write the authors. Though the report highlights innovative examples of climate change adaptation and mitigation from a variety of contexts, they are linked by their shared focus on gender. Tools and lessons learned from each chapter can effectively be used by others in many cases, and applied to various sectors and contexts.

The toolkit comes at an opportune time, as global leaders are evaluating plans to combat climate change under the Paris Agreement. Understanding the duality of vulnerability and potential embodied by many women around the world is crucial, and this report serves as a “forward-looking testimony of success stories” to inspire continued action and build momentum, says Tarja Halonen, former president of Finland.

As Figueres writes, it is essential that nations “develop gender-responsive climate change policies and strategies that ensure women are engaged at all levels of the decision-making process.”

Sources: International Union for Conservation of Nature, Global Gender and Climate Alliance, Government of Finland.

Photo Credit: A woman in North Darfur uses a roller to carry water, January 2010, courtesy of Albert Gonzalez Farran/UN Photo.