Women, though disproportionately affected by climate change, are an afterthought when it comes to climate action.
Take a look at any Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change—arguably the most significant platform for global climate negotiations. What don’t you see? Women.
Earlier this month, the presidency for COP29 in Azerbaijan, to convene in November, announced 28 members of its organising committee. There was not a single woman. Days later, following an outcry from non-governmental organisations and observers, the presidency backtracked and appointed 12 women. But this was only a patch-up for a deep-rooted and dangerous problem.
The COPs have long been a boys’ club, with women making up only five of 28 presidents and a meagre 35-37 per cent of the delegates—an increase of just 4-6 percentage points from 2008. Last year at COP28 in Dubai, the proportion of women among world leaders attending nudged up to 11 per cent and the COP president, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, appointed seasoned women government officials to all three of the other senior leadership positions.
There was even a ‘Gender Equality Day’ at COP28, unveiling a Gender-Responsive Just Transitions and Climate Action Partnership. This initiative, which has received the backing of more than 60 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, encompasses a series of commitments the signatories aim to fulfil over the three years leading up to COP31.
Yet, at the rate we are going, gender parity in COP delegations—and therefore, the opportunities for women to participate equitably in climate policy-making and strategy—will take around 40 more years. This is time we simply do not have.
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It is estimated that by 2050 climate change will push up to 158 million more women and girls into poverty and 236 million more women into hunger—among those, that is, who manage to survive the disasters ravaging countries such as Pakistan, in which women are 14 times as likely to die as men.
According to the UN, women and girls account for four out of five of those displaced by climate change. It is connected too to gender-based violence: hot temperatures have been linked to a 6.3 per cent increase in intimate-partner violence across India, Nepal and Pakistan.
However sobering the statistics, they still fail to capture the tragedy of the lived experiences of women around the world. This is no truer than in the global south, where the effects of climate change are felt most intensely—and the absence of women at the table has deadly repercussions.
Following the deluge in Pakistan in 2022, hundreds of thousands of women found themselves pregnant in the flood zones, with no access to healthcare or sanitation and gender-responsive aid largely absent. This caused maternal deaths to surge up to almost twice the national average, particularly in rural Sindh and Balochistan. It was local Pakistani women who ensured that menstrual hygiene products were delivered to these women—who, otherwise, would have been left using leaves and dirty rags, drastically increasing the risk of blood poisoning, hepatitis and often painful death.
It is the absence of women in decision-making fora that accounts for the dangerous blindspots in policy-making which allow these tragedies to unfold. As COPs come and go, men continue to talk economics and technology, while ‘feminised’ facets of climate adaptation—livelihoods, education, healthcare—are ignored. This leaves women and the coming generation of many countries in the global south dangerously vulnerable.
We deserve better than lip-service. COP leaders and governments around the world cannot afford to ignore gender-sensitive climate policies, in the face of incontrovertible evidence of the extreme vulnerability of half of the world’s population.
And the solutions are there. As part of my work with Faith For Our Planet, an interfaith climate action NGO spearheaded by the head of the Muslim World League, Sheikh Dr Mohammed Al-Issa—who has argued that women need to be critical to climate action in the global south—we have devised a blueprint for a model of inclusivity. This would target communities where religion plays a pivotal role in social organisations—communities such as those devastated during the Pakistan floods—addressing representation, financing and capacity-building.
It is time that the UN revised its policies for COP, mandating a 50-50 gender balance, as well as representation of sexual and gender minorities, in country delegations. Many have argued for the institution of a co-presidency comprising a man and woman. While quotas have often been criticised as ‘artificial’ inclusivity, they are important tools to ensure representation while long-term solutions are developed.
Having more women at the table, intrinsically critical, is also good for climate negotiations and policy-making. A 2019 study showed that the more women there are in parliament, the more likely it is that international climate treaties will be ratified and more stringent climate legislation passed.
We did see climate-finance initiatives set in train at COP28, including the long-awaited loss-and-damage fund which will revolutionise access for the climate-ravished global south, thanks to start-up contributions including €225 million from the European Union and $100 million from the United Arab Emirates. But financing for women has been limited and unpromising: an Oxfam report in 2020 found that just 1.5 per cent of climate-related official development assistance had gender equality as its primary objective and only 0.2 per cent reached women-led and women’s organisations.
Yet financing women’s resilience has community-wide impacts. Women are more likely to invest their skills and income in their children, more likely to be responsive to community welfare and concerns and more likely to carry intimate knowledge about resource use—factors critical to sustainable climate adaptation.
For COP to become truly gender-inclusive, we must invest in building a leadership that is truly representative. In addition to capacity-building and leadership training for women, all delegates to this and other fora must receive gender-sensitive training to understand the unique ways in which climate change affects women.
This would not only educate them on the need for women in climate leadership but also pave the way for improved policy-making. Any hope for the planet—and gender, racial and intergenerational climate justice—would require men at the helm of COP29 to consider women as more than an afterthought or, worse, a token.
Gender inequality is hardly a novel issue. And climate change is demonstrating just how deadly continued exclusion of women will prove.
Zareen Zahid Qureshi, a development practitioner in Pakistan, is chief executive of ZVMG Rangoonwala Trust’s youth-empowerment initiative. She was director of Children of Adam in Pakistan and national manager of the Poverty Eradication Initiative. After the 2022 floods she led relief efforts in Balochistan.