Why gender equality and women’s voices are relevant (even) in climate change discourse

Verona Collantes, UN Women

“Gender equality and women-related issues are being discussed by negotiators in New York; it has nothing to do with the discussions here on climate change!”

“We need clarification on the term gender-responsive even if this is an agreed language and has been used in decisions adopted by previous COPs.”

The above were just a few among the arguments that were used and often repeated to stall and delay the reaching of an agreement on a decision under the COP agenda item on gender and climate. Consensus eventually resulted in the adoption of the Lima Work Programme on Gender, but not without compromises, such as replacing references to gender equality with gender balance. Gender equality, it seems, brings with it some “meanings” and implications that are not relevant to the climate change discourse.

This line of argument, of thinking, is what perpetuates the practice of creating silos and relegating discussions on gender equality to “gender-specific” processes (e.g., the Commission on the Status of Women and the Third Committee of the General Assembly). Just when we thought we have passed that stage of silos to one of integration, interlinkages or mainstreaming, we were reminded at COP20 that we are continuing to live in the past.

This is despite the fact that back in 1992, Agenda 21 sealed the idea of sustainable development in its three dimensions – social, economic and environmental. Moreover, Agenda 21, the Future We Want (Rio+20 Outcome Document), and most recently, the Report of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) and the SAMOA Pathway (the outcome document of the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States) affirmed the importance of gender equality and women’s agency in realising sustainable development and endorsed concrete actions to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Yet in Lima, and in the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) negotiations, when Parties talk about “big” issues, such as equity and differentiation in contributions to emissions reduction and in responsibilities, or on what to include as elements of the new climate agreement – mitigation only versus mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, and means of implementation (finance, technology transfer and development, and capacity-building) – talking about the need to incorporate gender equality and women’s rights and women’s empowerment language in the new agreement finds little resonance.

Yes, there was the Gender Day which featured high-level and high-impact events gathering broad constituencies fighting for gender equality. Yes, the observer organisations, including the Women and Gender Constituency and the Youth Constituency were able to convey their messages, advancing gender equality with strong calls for Parties’ support. And yes, there were prominent champions bringing greater visibility to the importance of including women’s voices and gender equality issues, such as the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Envoy, Mary Robinson, the COP President himself, Peru’s Minister Pulgar-Vidal, as well as high-level UN officials from UN Women, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

But at the end of the day, we need Parties to appreciate and understand that the new climate agreement must include gender equality as a guiding principle and ensure the full and equal participation of women in all climate actions and decision-making processes. This is of course in addition to having gender equality mainstreamed throughout the entire agreement, including in adaptation, mitigation, finance, technology and capacity building.

All these will be vital in strengthening the complementarity of roles between women and men in adapting to, and mitigating against, the effects of climate change. Worth reiterating as well (as it is most often disregarded) is the fact that women’s rights are human rights.


 This article represents the views of the author and not that of her organisation.