The United Nations' Fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG5) commits us to 'Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls' by 2030: that is about 3,600 days from the day I write this. Globally, women are more likely to experience poverty and to have less socio-economic power than men. Women suffer increased sexual and gender-based violence both during and after humanitarian disasters. Two thirds of all preventable maternal deaths occur in settings of conflict, displacement or natural disasters. Eight out of ten people displaced by climate change are women. International humanitarian agencies are already overwhelmed by the scale of current problems: Can we even hope to achieve SDG5 within that timescale?
Many of the areas affected most by humanitarian crises are also economically disadvantaged, politically unstable and riven by conflict. Climate change only makes this worse. Oxfam reported that three times more men survived the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka than women because, it was suggested, men were more likely to be able to swim while women took care of children and vulnerable relatives. Nor is it only women in the developing world who are at risk. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, African-American women were among the worst affected by flooding in Louisiana, where it was also found that emergency shelters held insufficient stocks of sanitary products; thus demonstrating gender inequality even in a well-prepared and well-resourced country like the USA.
In the Sahel, drought forces many men to migrate to find other work in order to support their families remaining behind. Many such men never return, leaving the abandoned women and children to bear the brunt. In Africa alone, it is estimated that 17 million women and girls collect water every day, a burden further increased by the need to maintain food crops when drought strikes. Consequently, girls take on extra family responsibilities and withdraw from school. This further disadvantages girls who, in many parts of the developing world, are less likely than boys to receive an education in the first place. In Bangladesh, young girls are reportedly being taken out of school to marry early in order to reduce economic stress. Not only does this reduce the opportunities that education is intended to create, but often results in profoundly negative impacts on the young girls' mental, physical and overall well-being.
Half of the world's population is female. They bear all of the children but make few of the decisions that affect their lives. This disproportionality is not limited to the poor and uneducated. Three quarters of all those nominated to contribute to the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are men. I do not doubt that these men will be sincere in their efforts to represent the female perspective, but having a 3:1 majority on this vital panel sends a paternalistic message. The UN has highlighted the need for gender sensitive responses to the impacts of climate change, yet the actual representation of women on global and national negotiating bodies is less than three in ten and numbers don’t improve at local level. Even more pointedly, Diana Liverman (Regents Professor of Geography and Development, University of Arizona, USA) told BBC’s Science in Action, that in her view women are not involved in the decisions made about any aspect of climate change and the money ends up going to the men. That may seem a harsh criticism, but women and girls are still bearing a disproportionate share of the consequences of climate change, conflict and political instability and they deserve to be given a stronger representative voice.
Involving women at all stages of the decision-making process is vital. There needs to be a forum where women can articulate the problems faced by women. Women need to be involved in designing potential practical solutions because they have to implement them. There needs to be a forum where women can share good practice so that it can be adapted and transferred to other regions. They need to have a seat at the table where decisions affecting women are made.
If we are really serious about achieving the ambitions of SDG5 then we in the richest nations must demonstrate commitment by putting the female voice at the centre of decision-making and programme design. If that means actively co-opting women onto the IPCC to achieve balance, then we must do it. The case for gender-sensitive policies has been made in SDG5. Women from the international to the local level, must be seen to be representative. We need to act now because time is running out.
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