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Why women are central to climate action

There is a wealth of evidence to show that existing inequalities worsen the effects of climate change for many marginalised and vulnerable people across the globe. For many women, their adaptive capacity is hindered by factors including access to education, restricted land ownership, or added risks associated with displacement. Of the 26 million people displaced by climate change globally, 20 million are women [1]. Displacement increases women's vulnerability to violence; in Northeastern Nigeria, terrorist group Boko Haram has targeted women who have been displaced from their land by drought [2]. In other contexts, women's movements may be restricted without a male chaperone and prevent them from seeking shelter or safety with an unknown male if displaced. The 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh killed five times more women than men largely due to the fact that women in the area were not taught to swim and many left their homes too late because they were waiting to be accompanied by a male relative [3].

This evidence is alarming and has been widely used by activists and policy-makers calling for improved gender mainstreaming in climate action. Yet gender mainstreaming is only effective if we also recognise women's position beyond victims; women are at the heart of climate action as leaders, activists and innovators and have been pushing the climate response forward with great success for decades. In 2021, Gina McCarthy was convened as the US' first national climate advisor, Greta Thunberg has established herself as the face of global climate activism, and the 2010 Cancun Agreements were spearheaded by Patricia Espinosa, who successfully established a $100 billion fund to help developing nations address climate change. Greater attention needs to be given to the women-led solutions that are happening on the ground too, to improve resource management, food production and infrastructure. In the páramo ecosystem of Ecuadorian Andes, Indigenous women are restoring the local ecosystem after years of desertification and overgrazing through sustainable agricultural methods and landscape management [4]. In Uganda, the Slum Women's Initiative for Development (SWID), a grassroots women-led organisation, successfully negotiated with local authorities in Jinja leading to improvements in infrastructure of informal settlements to protect from urban flooding [5]. These are just a few examples of countless informal projects and missions spearheaded by women across the globe to build communities that are more resilient to the effects of climate change and achieve a sustainable future.

Women in Development

Despite the obvious success and commitment of women across the globe, glaring inequalities in leadership, opportunities and funding persist to such an extent that gender parity in climate leadership is not estimated to be fulfilled until 2068 [6]. The obvious institution to look to to narrow this gap is the UNFCCC and the annual global climate negotiations, the COPs. A joint statement released by the Scottish Government and UN Women at COP26 in November last year made a promising commitment to the full and equal participation of women in climate policy and decision-making. Yet the first three women to sign the statement -- leaders of Estonia, Tanzania and Bangladesh -- represented nearly one-third of all female leaders at the conference [7].

Achieving a gender balance is just the first step. Data published by the UNFCCC revealed that men spoke 74 percent of the time in plenary meetings between May and June last year, revealing a worrying gap between gender representation and participation [8]. The structure of the COPs makes this difficult. The negotiations have a carefully pre-set agenda of which a large number of topics need to be covered and there are strict regulations on who can speak in important decision-making meetings, often leading experts of niche fields on the periphery [9]. However, a failure to address the structures that prevent women from meaningfully participating in decision-making at the highest levels only limits the extent to which a gender balance can be felt on the ground and in communities policy-makers are looking to serve. Greater diversity in voices and perspectives at the highest levels of climate negotiations is essential for effective policy-making that considers the complexity of the climate crisis from both an ecological and sociological perspective.