Gender and Climate Change: Durban Explores the Intersection

by Rebecca Lefton

Most people do not think of climate change as a gender issue. But experts at the COP 17 climate conference in Durban, South Africa are trying to raise awareness of the disproportionate impact that a changing climate has on women. Women are responsible for collecting water that is becoming increasingly scarce, and they are needing to travel farther distances to reach clean water supplies. Women are primarily responsible for putting food on the table, but food prices are rising and as climate change worsens agricultural productivity. And women are often the most vulnerable in war and regional conflicts, which will be exacerbated by resource scarcity.

A discussion held  in Durban focused on these impacts. The panel featured the Honorable Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In addressing climate resilience, Robinson stressed the importance of focusing on health and burden impacts of climate change. One of the keys is access to reproductive health for women.

However, access to reproductive health is not on the agenda during COP 17 in Durban. This absence is in part a product of the United Nations system, which segments women’s rights, reproductive health and climate change initiatives under different bodies—encompassed by UN Women, UN Population Fund and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change respectively.

 On December 7, Robinson and other prominent female leaders at the COP, including Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC and Connie Hedegaard, European Commission Commissioner for Climate Action, are convening a high-level meeting to identify the intersections between climate change and gender. The goal is to ensure that the COP outcomes have an appropriate focus on gender issues and to continue focus on the issue outside of the negotiations.

The linkages between climate change and family planning are still nascent. For instance, only one country’s national adaption plan includes reproductive health as a strategy — and that program is unfunded, said Roger-Mark De Souza of Population Action International. Yet, most of the places that are most vulnerable to climate change are also the same places that have a need for family planning.

We are missing out on opportunities to address global warming, health and women’s rights simultaneously. There is vast opportunity to make a cost-effective investment in reproductive health while also addressing climate change.

When crafting responses to climate change, we must also consider the impact on women and girls and include them in decision-making at all levels. Ensuring economic opportunities, providing education, and ensuring access to reproductive services can help limit vulnerability and improve health outcomes for women and the planet.

Rebecca Lefton is a policy analyst with the energy team at the Center for American Progress.

Think Progress