Gender in Climate Change Negotiations. A Critical Look

Photo UNDP. Village: Raypur, Panchayat: Sukala Block: Stayabadi District: Puri, State: Odhisa , India

In November of 2016 the Conference of Parties, COP22, took place in Marrakech, Morrocco. Although both the media and international policy makers gave it less attention than the COP21 in Paris, the Marrakech event was significant for its inclusion of gender as a critical climate change topic. The success in including gender as a relevant subject was partly due to the renewal of the Lima Work Program, a gender-focused initiative developed two years prior in Peru. Although at COP22 the joint discussion of gender and climate change became common practice, there remains significant challenges in defining what gender inclusion means.

The inclusion of “gender” within COP has largely and predominantly been focused on the inclusion of women, speaking within the frame of the gender binary. This year, three main lines of argumentation for this inclusion were clear; one based on a more “neoliberal” discourse, another that could be considered as more “ecofeminist”, and a third which focuses on the vulnerability of women.

The neoliberal frame is one focused predominantly on the monetary value of the inclusion of women. The idea that “investing in women causes a higher return on investment” is one couched in ideas of women as being more responsible, an argument most commonly seen in discussions on micro credit and micro finance. Though there may be truth in the findings that women tend to repay loans more often than men, this discourse is problematic in two ways. The first being that this can lead to a misleading generalization of women as being more responsible purely because they are women or mothers. It also implies that men are therefore irresponsible and not able to appreciate needs of the family or of children.

The neoliberal approach focusing on responsibility, and funds stewardship, however, is more promising than one based on the paternal concept of women being more “responsible” family members. If those in power within international development settings accept the concept of “if you give money to women they will spend it on their children, but if you give money to men they will spend it on themselves”, this can lead to restricting women to the domestic space and falsely label men as irresponsible. Ultimately, the monetary value of women is undermined, as they are relegated to the role of caregiver.

The second frame of argumentation, one that can be identified as more ecofeminist, has to do with identifying women as environmental problem-solvers. This frame claims that, because women are able to give birth, they are therefore more connected to the earth. This argument often brings into forefront the idea of “mother earth” and feminized identities of nature. I am not sure about other women, but I definitely do not consider myself to be closer to nature than my male counterparts. By assuming that women are more connected to nature simply by virtue of their biological reproductive abilities is further problematic because it can lead to the claim that it is therefore more the responsibility of women to solve climate problems.

The final, and most common, frame of argumentation is one based on the idea of vulnerability. Often advocates for the inclusion of women in climate change policy will call upon statistics which reference women as the population most likely to die during a natural disaster. Identifying women as the “most vulnerable” social group identifies them as victims or potential victims, ones needed to be “saved”. This victimizing discourse, much like the discourses on the “feminization of poverty” identified by a number of feminist academics, takes away all potential agency of the women in question. By identifying them through mortality statistics, which are still not completely verified, these women are no longer considered individuals with their own decision-making abilities. The discourse also distracts from any potential for questioning the larger societal and cultural issues that contribute to higher mortality and poverty rates, including health-related vulnerabilities due to child-birth, as well as access to finance. By talking exclusively about women we are also ignoring and overlooking their equals, the men within these communities.

The COP fora has come a long way in terms of gender inclusion in general, with more and more policy makers recognizing the importance and relevance of gender within the international issue of climate change. Like any change, however, it is valuable to remain critical of the discourses employed, particularly when the populations in question are subject to structural and systematic forms of oppression. Most importantly, if we want to include a gender perspective, then the perspectives of both genders must be appreciated. By not specifically identifying either group, we render that group invisible, exacerbating the inequalities present.

One other major problem worth noting is the exclusion of any other forms of gender identity, outside of the binary of women and men. This issue, however, has generally been left out of any discussions within COP. This is generally attributed to the fact that any decisions made at COP are made by consensus, meaning all nations must agree. Because many nations do not recognize any gender identities apart from female and male, any mention of LGBTQI identities are quickly halted.

Article by Laura Cooper Hall

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