Can we really save only half of all people on the planet? Without a gender focus, climate solutions are bound to fail

by Dana Stefov, Oxfam Canada | June 21, 2023
Background media: A woman is standing a barren, arid area, looking up in the sky and is wearing a blue head covering and black and white checked shirt.
Pablo Tosco/Oxfam Intermón

After five consecutive failed rainy seasons, the Horn of Africa is facing its most severe drought in 40 years, and it is getting worse. More than 20 million people are facing severe food insecurity, and over 16.3 million alarming water shortages for cooking and drinking.

As climate negotiators met in Bonn, Germany, the last two weeks, the Horn of Africa drought is just one example of how the climate crisis is hitting communities hardest who’ve contributed the least to it.

Take Pakistan last year, when fully a third of the country went underwater, displacing 33 million people and destroying two million homes and 90% of crops. It was the women there who suffered most.

In the ensuing havoc, maternal healthcare was swept away too. Women went unsupported for miscarriages and their anxieties and trauma. They lost access to basic sanitation. Women reported a spike in gender-based violence, even as their burden of unpaid care work and household chores intensified.

In low- and middle-income countries, women farmers produce between 40 to 80 percent of the food. The impacts of climate change mean traditional food sources become more scarce leading to loss of income for women who are highly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.

The harm from climate-induced disasters is not visited equally on all. Poor people are hurt sooner and worse. So too are women and children who are 14 times more likely to die than men, according to the IUCN. Women and girls, the primary carers of the household, have less access to resources and are excluded from virtually all of the key decision-making processes.

The resources required to tackle this gendered inequality are not moving in the right direction. To date, most climate action projects simply fail to prioritize the specific needs of women and girls.

Oxfam’s “Climate Finance Shadow Report 2023” estimates that only one third of international climate finance flowing into low- and middle-income countries have any kind of gender equality outcomes reflected in their design.

A mere 2.9% of this funding went into projects where gender equality was actually the principal objective.

To make matters worse, very little climate finance even reaches women’s organizations at the community level. Donors, multilateral development banks and UN agencies are simply failing to prioritize locally-led climate action, despite their public endorsements of it.

This lack of foresight and appreciation of the role that women must play in tackling climate change is really damaging — for all of us.

Women’s rights organizations, especially those organizing at the grassroots in low-income countries, already hold many of the solutions — and the power to enact those solutions — to the climate crisis.

These women, who have mobilized as part of local community action, are the ones with the lived experience of what works, and the ingenuity, commitment, and resolve to make change happen. What they solely and scandalously lack at the moment is the power and resources to actually do so.

Putting women’s rights and gender equality at the heart of our climate interventions will not only make them more equitable and lasting, but also more successful. Climate adaptation and mitigation efforts should focus on addressing the gender-specific impacts of climate change.

We have ignored and disparaged half of the world’s population for far too long.

Governments, civil society and businesses need to recognise the significant contribution that women make in coping with climate disasters — be they as care workers, farmers, migrants, land defenders or advocates against gender-based violence. Women need to be at the centre of all adaptation and mitigation efforts because otherwise these initiatives will fail.

Directing climate financing to women, and on behalf of women, is a relatively easy and transformational step that donors can make — fast — in order to tackle harms being caused by the relationship between global gender inequality and climate change.

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