BONN, Germany (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Achala Abeysinghe, an expert on legal issues at the U.N. climate change talks, advises the chair of the world’s poorest countries at the negotiations. While she has worked with a series of “really good gentlemen” over the years, she thinks it’s high time the group was led by a woman.
A new gender action plan, set to be approved at the end of the annual climate conference on Friday in Bonn, could help make that a reality in the coming years.
The plan, which comes five years after a “gender balance” goal was first adopted in Doha to increase women’s participation in the negotiations, notes a “lack of progress” on this aim.
Mary Robinson, former Irish president, founder of her own climate justice foundation, and someone who pushed hard to ensure gender equality was enshrined in the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle global warming, said the new plan was “a big step forward” for a U.N. process that initially ignored gender.
The reality is “we are slipping further away from achieving the goal of gender balance”, she warned.
Statistics cited in a recent paper from the U.N. climate change secretariat show the average percentage of women participating in negotiating sessions from 2008 to 2012 was about 31 percent.
After the Doha decision, the percentage of women delegates at the annual conferences, known as COPs, rose to a high of 36 percent but dropped back down to 32 percent in 2015 and 2016.
Analysis by climate news website CarbonBrief showed the proportion has jumped back to 38 percent this year in Bonn.
But women at the talks said there was still much work to do to achieve gender equality, both at the talks and in climate change action more widely.
“We all need to understand that... if we don’t involve women in our decision-making processes - and the knowledge they have - we are not going to be living in a world that any of us want to be a part of,” said Osprey Orielle Lake, founder and co-director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network.
Abeysinghe, who is Sri Lankan, said that in the countries she advises at the talks, such as Bangladesh and Burundi, climate change makes existing inequalities worse, and leaves many poor women struggling to provide for their families.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, about 70 percent of the burden of collecting water for households falls on women and girls, and changing rainfall patterns could force them to travel even further in search of the essential resource, according to the New Climate Economy, a global commission.
Thilmeeza Hussain, a former negotiator for the low-lying island nation of the Maldives, said she and her peers were doing everything they could “to make sure our children don’t end up as climate refugees” as a warming planet brings rising seas.
She hopes the new gender action plan will “provide a bigger platform so that women’s voices can be amplified and better heard - and there (will) be more equal representation and resources mobilized in order for that to happen”.
Besides boosting the number of women decision-makers, the plan aims to train both male and female policymakers to bring gender equality into climate funding programs. It also seeks to collect better data, and involve more women from grassroots and indigenous groups in climate action, among other things.
With the right tools in their hands - including funding - even the poorest women can make a huge difference in the climate fight, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, told a discussion on women’s climate leadership on the sidelines of the U.N. talks.
In India, for example, the Self Employed Women’s Association has helped some 30,000 salt miners, most of them women, change the energy source for their pumps from diesel to solar, which has cut their costs, reduced environmental damage and boosted local development, she said.
Women’s rights activists said the test of the gender action plan would be in how it is put into practice, and vowed to hold governments accountable for providing funding for policies that help women tackle climate change and fulfill their rights.
Monica Araya, a former negotiator and founder of Costa Rica Limpia, which promotes renewable energy and electric mobility, said men needed to be brought into the conversation too.
The gender action plan should be perceived “as a cause that both men and women own because it will make climate action go further and deeper as new leaders emerge”, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate