Following her recent presentation at the Africa-India Women Conference in New Delhi, Unleash: Opportunities. Aspirations. Leadership. Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment for Global Change, Manuella Appiah in this commentary calls for greater participation of African women in international (public) climate change forums and provides a set of recommendations for governments and multilateral organizations. African women would bring vital insights based on their experience from dealing with economic and social vulnerability as a consequence of changing climate alongside their central role in managing food and energy security on the continent.
International Consensus for Women’s Empowerment
The rationale for women’s empowerment draws on a range of mainstream arguments and perspectives. For governance, the equal participation of men and women in decision-making enhances democratization and ensures strong ownership among women for the policies that affect their interests and needs. For sustainable development, the indispensability of women was recognized, inter alia, at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995 as well as in Resolution 70/1 “Transforming our World; the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” of the United Nations General Assembly, which adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015. While SDG 5 is dedicated to achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls, women play a vital role in realizing all of the SDGs.
In the area of climate action, which is specifically addressed by SDG 13, achieving global climate objectives demands the equal and full participation of women in decision-making. There is also growing recognition that women’s economic, social and political empowerment must be prioritized in adaptation and mitigation efforts. The 2015 Paris Agreement makes numerous calls to contracting parties to adopt gender-sensitive policies when implementing the agreement. While there are now more gender parity policies in public and corporate institutions and much has been achieved in some sectors and within specific countries, there is still much to gain within (multilateral) political institutions dealing with environmental issues and climate change.
Weak Representation at International Negotiations
In Africa, women are responsible for 60-80 percent of cultivated food. In the next few decades, crop production overall on the continent is expected to decline by 20-50 percent due to climate change which will affect more than 50 percent of the women in the region. According to United Nations Development Programme, women do not have easy and adequate access to funds to cover weather-related losses or adaptation technologies. Linked to this, the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2015 asserts that over 630 million people in Africa do not have access to electricity while over two-thirds of the households depend on women for their energy needs.
Notwithstanding these statistical trends, African women have weak representation at important international processes on climate change and renewable energy such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) platform. Calls from various UNFCCC bodies on states to ensure gender balance in their national delegations to UNFCCC negotiations and committees have had little impact. At the 2015 UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Paris, women accounted for around 35 percent of all national Party delegates and around 26 percent of the Heads of Delegations. Research shows that while, for example, the participation of women from Eastern and Western Europe in negotiations is about 45 percent, that of African and Asia-Pacific delegations stands at about 21. A quick glance at the composition of several key UNFCCC standing bodies ─ the Adaptation Committee, Technology Mechanism, Standing Committee on Finance─ shows that overall, African women represent less than 30 percent of the African delegates. Thus, there is an urgency to enhance both the descriptive as well as the substantive representation of female stakeholders at climate policy deliberations.
Realizing Women’s Empowerment
African women have highly valuable knowledge resources concerning the environment which if given the necessary room to thrive can enhance climate policies; especially in relation to presenting the interest of the continent at negotiations. Ultimately it requires structural change at the national level. In the long term, the elimination of discriminatory and other practices that prevent women from being able to develop their skills and ambitions at the workplace may help to ensure gender parity in political participation. The stringent enforcement of equal-participation legislation which is present in many constitutions across the continent can ensure equal opportunities for boys and girls from primary school through university and during employment enrolment. This will ultimately create a level playing field to enable as many women as possible to reach the top.
More immediately, African countries, for example through African Union or sub-regional organizations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) could enact policies to structurally increase the number of women delegates at international climate-change related negotiations both at the bilateral and multilateral levels. The gender equality principle enshrined in the Constitutive Act of the African Union and reaffirmed in the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa could serve as a legal basis for such a policy. Using instruments like these African Union organs currently enforce 50-50 gender parity and representation in all structures. Such a quota system could be emulated by Member States’ delegations to multilateral negotiation platforms. An affirmative action policy could be linked to initiatives like that of the Women Delegates Fund, which work to enhance women’s participation in the climate negotiations through training, funding and networking support.
To conclude women are champions of change. Their societal and economic roles give them an unparalleled influence on present and future generations. Empowering women at negotiation tables means securing innovative, pragmatic and sustainable policies. Hence efforts aimed at combating climate change and its effects must be gender-sensitive both in the substance and process.