An unidentified woman navigates a flooded riverside path in Bangkok, Thailand via Shutterstock

COP21 is expected to attract over 50,000 participants. In addition to the Parties, thousands of non-government and inter-government organizations will attend, each representing various interests, from indigenous peoples to trade unions to business. Among the nine “constituencies,” or coalitions of like-minded organizations officially recognized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is the Women and Gender Constituency. This group will work to bring gender issues to the fore of conference proceedings and outcomes.

But what does gender have to do with climate change?

Women comprise 70 percent of the world's poor—and those with the least resources are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Women, for example, are more likely than men to die in extreme weather events and may be disproportionately affected urbanization, migration and conflict related to climate change. Moreover, women hold primary responsibility for household and community food, water and energy, particularly in developing countries. When climate change affects these resources, women bear the consequences first and foremost. As Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director for UN Women, wrote for the Huffington Post last year, while world leaders negotiate a climate change agreement, “a mother in Ethiopia will make the difficult choice to take her daughter out of school to help in the task of gathering water, which requires more and more time with each passing year.”

Women are on the front lines of climate change, witnessing effects firsthand and often acquiring necessary skills for adaption and management. Women are therefore critical both to understanding climate change and to developing solutions.

For these reasons, members of the Women and Gender Constituency, along with many individuals, organizations, and Parties concerned about gender issues, are working to ensure that any agreement reached at COP21 is “gender responsive.”

What would this look like?

First, decision-making processes would include equal numbers of men and women at all levels, from local community organizations to Party delegations and official UNFCCC bodies. Currently, executive bodies established under the Convention are mandated to achieve gender equality, yet in 2015 remain predominantly male. Second, gender equality and gender justice would be incorporated in meaningful ways throughout the text of any binding climate agreement, including all major sections of the document: articles on mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity building.

Although gender was slow to be recognized as a vital aspect of climate change negotiations, some recent progress has been made. At COP20 last year, the Lima Work Programme on Gender was established to help achieve a gender-responsive climate agreement. At subsequent meetings in early 2015, gender-related issues were included throughout a draft climate agreement. However, a much shortened draft of the agreement, released October 5 and meant as basis for negotiations in Paris, has much of this language removed. The WGC and concerned Parties will work hard to retain and strengthen gender-responsive language at COP21, particularly on December 9, which has been designated “Gender Day.”

Katherine J. Barrett holds an MSc in Microbiology, and a PhD in Botany and Ethics, both from the University of British Columbia. She is the founder and chief for Understorey Magazine and an editor with the Afghan Women's Writing Project and Demeter Press. Katherine has published numerous scholarly articles, essays, columns and short stories. She lives in a small town in Nova Scotia. 

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