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December 9, 2015 | A Place at the Table: The Vital Connection Between Women and Climate Change

Last week, over 150 world leaders gathered together in Paris for the launch of the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), indicating that climate change is finally becoming a forefront issue in global policy. And the vast majority of these world leaders were men.

As 50% of the world’s population, it’s obvious that women need to be a part of the conversation surrounding climate change. But even more importantly, many groups of women disproportionately feel the impacts of climate change, which makes it even more critical that their voices be heard in the COP negotiations and that the generated solutions take gender issues into account.

Climate change affects particular groups of women — especially indigenous and rural women in developing countries — more than it affects the men of those communities. Often, women in developing communities are the ones that interact the most with the natural environment — by gathering water from nearby sources, harvesting crops, and preparing meals. Climate change is likely to bring harsher weather, changes in food distribution, and decreases in water availability in some areas. While these changes will affect everyone on the planet, women in developing communities will be the first ones impacted and will feel the negative consequences most deeply.

Another unique aspect to the female role is that many women around the world still do not have the same rights as men in their communities. Typically, women are limited to the realm of the home, lacking access to local political and social spaces in which they might have the opportunity to voice their needs, express their opinions, or participate in the decision-making process. While the sense of urgency is rising, and communities are quickly needing to adapt to the effects of climate change, the ones that will be hit the hardest often don’t have the chance to speak up.

December 8 was Women and Gender Day at COP21, and I had the chance to interview fantastic role model and environmental activist Priscilla Achakpa. Priscilla is from Nigeria and is the executive director of the Women Environmental Programme (WEP), where she works with women to develop “sustainable solutions to everyday problems," as described by this Vogue article in which she appeared as one of 13 female “Climate Warriors” on the frontline of tackling climate change.

“We’re looking at technologies that are affordable, accessible, available, sustainable; technologies that the women can operate by themselves without any cost implications,” Priscilla remarked. The ultimate goal is for all of the projects to be self-sustainable; while the women in WEP’s targeted communities need resources to get started, they will ultimately manage the projects themselves and scale them up to achieve a broader impact.

One example of a WEP project is the introduction of solar dryers in rural communities in Nigeria. The problem was that the women in these communities were responsible for harvesting the rice husks that provided the financial base for their communities, but had no way to preserve them during the off-season. As a result, many rice husks were wasted because they could not be stored properly, and much economic potential was lost because there were no rice husks to use or sell in the off-season. With solar dryers, the women are now able to dry husks efficiently (drying them takes 1-2 hours), store them through the off-season, and provide more economic stability for themselves and their communities. This technology is also simple and sustainable, which makes the project easy to replicate and maintain. As Priscilla said, “The only thing we bought was the solar panels themselves.”

One of the most important things that struck me about my conversation with Priscilla was her explanation of the design of WEP’s process in working with communities. “So together with the women, we sat down, we discussed, and they enumerated what their problems are,” Priscilla explained. “And we said the solutions will be bottom-up. It’s not a top-down approach; we might be working with you but you have to tell us how you want to solve this problem.” Priscilla’s process puts the power directly into the hands of these women, who feel the impacts of environmental change the most, and who know exactly what they need to improve their situation. “These initiatives can be replicated in other parts of the world,” she said. “The money goes directly into the pockets of society.”

But while Priscilla and many others are doing great work on the ground, and are putting decision-making power back into the hands of women, the global political sphere does not yet reflect those same values. “We’re here discussing issues such as technology, such as adaptation, such as mitigation, such as finance, and women are not at the negotiating table, with these men that are negotiating on our behalf,” Priscilla said. “So whatever decision they come up with is not reflective of our needs.”

It’s true that while men are also a critical part of the solution, and men and women need to work together to come to a global agreement on climate change, there are some impacts and decisions on this issue that are gender specific. “He who feels it knows it better,” Priscilla told me. “We know what problems we have and if we are at the negotiating table, we will be able to state exactly how we feel.”

The fact that December 8 was Women and Gender Day at COP 21 was an exciting and important step toward not only equality but also more dialogue on this issue in the context of global environmental policy. But as Priscilla reminded me, we still have a long way to go before women have a truly equal voice at the table, in COP negotiations and local communities alike: “How many countries have really reflected the issues of women, children, and youth into their INDCs? And yet they’re here, today is Gender Day […] So what is Gender Day about, if they’re not integrating gender policies into their agreement?"

 

Emma Hutchinson is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Emma is a junior at Stanford University, where she is studying environmental science and economics.