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Gender in the climate negotiations: Inclusion beyond tokenism

  • Published at 01:42 pm February 28th, 2019
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In the lead up to the Gender Action Plan, where do we stand?

When they are not considered in climate policy, women are often the last to receive help after disasters, particularly where gender inequality is already stark. Compounding this deficit of assistance, women may also end up with additional domestic and care work in the wake of a disaster. 

To break this cycle of compounding vulnerability climate decision-making must bring women into the forefront. When decision-makers do not only consider women, but also a part of the policy-making process, both the situation of women and the sustainability of solutions over time may improve. 

The concern with female representation within the UNFCCC was enshrined in decision 23/CP.18 at Doha (2012), which encouraged Bodies and Parties to the UNFCCC to strive for gender balance. Gender balance has become a prioritized matter of action for states and decision-making on the premise that it may improve climate policy by making it more gender-responsive. 

The formalization of this concern corresponds to an uptick in advocacy and research regarding female participation, which holds that if women are not included in climate decision-making, they are often left disproportionately exposed to the impacts of climatic disasters as in the examples above. This is due to the strong link between gender and both social and economic roles. 

The Gender Action Plan set for review in Chile this December was formally set out two years ago at COP23 in Fiji. However, the motivation for this traces back to 2014 with the proposal of the Lima work plan on gender at COP20. 

In the lead up to COP25, one of the key questions on the table is, what progress have we made on bringing women into international climate negotiations? Measuring this progress can be done in terms of representation, participation, and leadership. Most available statistics deal specifically with the representation of women in UNFCCC delegations. 

The average number of women in national delegations to the UNFCCC has grown since reporting began, but stagnated in 2017-2018 at its all-time high of 38 percent. However, given that female representation was already 32 percent in 2008, average female representation across all UNFCCC delegations has only increased by 6 percent percent over the past ten years. 

Improvements are occurring in terms of minimizing extreme gender disparities in national UNFCCC delegations: here, the number of delegations completely excluding women has fallen from 47 in 2008 to 7 in 2018.

Between 2015-18, 53 countries (or around 27.5 percent of all COP delegations) attained gender parity, with some countries such as Angola, Bolivia and Syria repeatedly doing so.

Analyzing representation in terms of the regional groupings used by the UNFCCC, the average delegation sent from Asian-Pacific and African states counted 2-8 percent fewer women than the global average over the past two years, whereas the Eastern European, Western European and Latin American and Caribbean groups have sent 5-12 percent more women in their national delegations than the global average. 

Despite remaining at the lowest average, of all groups, Asian-Pacific states have experienced the greatest growth in female representation, up from 20 percent in 2008 to 35 percent in 2018. 

Speaking in terms of UNFCCC negotiating blocks, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) - of which Bangladesh is a key member - have lagged behind the other groupings in almost all statistics (including maximum and average percentage of women represented) for the past two years. 

Assessing gender parity in terms of countries with the fewest women in their delegations (10 percent or fewer), LDCs have also been the historical laggard (from 2008-2012) and have continued to be so in recent years (from 2017-2018).

Where does Bangladesh fit into all of this? Although its negotiators are known as significant players in both the formal and informal negotiations, data from the past two COPs (Bonn and Katowice) show that Bangladesh is one of the countries sending the fewest women as a percentage of its total delegation. 

The six female delegates sent in 2018 composed just 8 percent of the country’s 83 total negotiators, which although an increase from 2 delegates in 2017 (6 percent of the 35 total delegates), still places Bangladesh in the bottom ten countries globally for female representation.

In addition to counting the number of women sent to these negotiations, attention must also be given to where and how they both participate and engage in decision-making. Informal settings, the presence of women does not equate to their participation. 

Indeed, in plenary sessions of the COP, where the agenda and tone are set, women’s voices are conspicuously absent. As well, the ‘sessional gap’ noted by the UNFCCC itself in terms of women’s participation in subsidiary body meetings indicates that women are nominated in significantly fewer numbers to attend final COP sessions than their male counterparts. 

Whether this results from a lack of confidence on behalf of the female representatives, the relative expertise or seniority of male delegates, the internalization of gendered expectations, or some level of discrimination, has yet to be confirmed.

Notably, the numbers of women have been increasing within informal fora. At COP24, NGOs and third-party interveners were predominantly female for the second year in a row, making up 56.6 percent of participants in 2017 and 63.4 percent in 2018. 

While these interactions do shape the priorities of civil society they do not, however, necessarily have the power to shape the legally binding decisions which may come out of COPs. 

At the same time, UNFCCC conference observers have corroborated trends related to ‘issue genderization’ and ‘manels’. These phenomena have been described before by organizations like International Gender Champions and UN Women. 

They find that men are more likely to serve as experts on topics such as telecoms/IT, science/technology, and security whereas, majority-female panels prevail when gender equality and women’s rights are at hand. 

As a general rule, men are likely to outnumber female panel participants by a ratio of 2:1. This said, while women’s expansion in informal spaces does promise increasing avenues for discussion which prioritizes women, it should not be uncritically approached as a gain, the ‘crowding in’ of women may signal the crowding out of men.

With these considerations in mind, there are also relative successes for which the UNFCCC must be recognized. While 12.9 percent of national level leaders (heads of government and heads of state) globally were female in 2017, in that same year women made up approximately 24 percent of delegation heads to sessions of the governing bodies of the UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement, and 53.8 percent of the chairs of constituted bodies under these agreements. 

This progress is laudable, but the inclusion of women must be scrutinized to ensure that it is not a matter of tokenism and that additionally, the opportunities extended to educated and upper-class women are extended to their capable female peers.

Thus women may be increasing in number at the UNFCCC, but what of their influence? At COP25, delegates and observers must consider whether the concerns put forward by governments not only acknowledge, but also prioritize the concerns of women. Numbers tell one story, but there is still a lot to be done. 

Research for this article conducted for the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the European capacity building initiative (ecbi) to support their efforts to train young, female negotiators from LDCs. 

Samantha is a recent graduate from the London School of Economics with a Masters in Environmental Policy and Regulation. Since graduating, she has been involved in various research projects on emissions disclosures, climate litigation as a strategy for climate action, and the connection between disasters and climate change policy.