Saturday, December 1, 2012

Gender equity: Do we want to be equals on a sinking ship?

It has ended up being a much busier week than usual for me at a COP meeting.  Exhaustion, along with frequent internet disruptions at the hotel, has led to a lapse in my blogging.  I just returned from the last activities of the Convention Center for week 1 (for me anyway), so will now turn my attention to catching up on sharing some of the stories from the Conference.

The Qatar National Conventional Center

One of the QNCC's long hallways
In an earlier post, I referred to the first COP Gender Day -- an official declaration by the UNFCCC Secretariat.  The term “gender equity” first gained attention at COP17 in Durban last year, and the first-ever gender-picnic was held.  At COP 7 in Marrakesh, a decision (36/CP.7) was formalized to “improve the participation of women in the representation of Parties in bodies established under the Convention of the Kyoto Protocol.”  Progress has been made, but there has been growing research verifying that women are disproportionately disadvantaged, especially in developing countries (or the Global South) when it comes to the negative impacts of climate change.  Additionally, one outcome of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development was the “recognition of women’s leadership and their vital role in achieving sustainable development.”[1]  Given that the past three COP presidents have been females, as is the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, it is not surprising that the issue of gender equity has been brought to the forefront of international climate dialog.  What is surprising to many is that this has become such a predominant issue at a COP meeting held in the Middle East.

The COP18 President and some members of the delegation from Qatar
Gender Day at COP18 was filled with panels, the launch of a book about women adapting to climate change (mentioned in one of my previous posts[2]), receptions, and celebrations.  I am not one to typically engage in events focused solely on women’s issues, but out of admiration for political challenges that had been faced by the past 3 COP presidents (all female), and especially for Executive Secretariat Christiana Figueres (who continues to amaze me with her brilliance, diplomacy, and grace under pressure), I decided to attend the book launch.  This event also featured the COP18 and 19 presidents, the Executive Secretariat, and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland (1990-1997).  Ms. Robinson (“Mama Mary” as she was affectionately referred to during the session) has worked endlessly on behalf of human rights through the United Nations as High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997 – 2002) and now, as founder and board chair of the Mary Robinson Foundation: Climate Justice. 


I was pleased that much of the discussion focused on gender-smart policies — sound decisions that would have positive impact on all people.  In other words, this gender-related event didn’t just refer to women as such events usually do.  Granted, there was talk about the unique perspectives women can bring to the table when empowered as leaders and their very important roles in homes and communities.  Phrases like “enablers of food security”, “effective decision makers” in homes and on the world stage, and “fountains of knowledge” – both traditional and learned through formal education – were used.  The roles of women as avenues for facilitating and scaling up innovative forms of adaptation were discussed.  Examples were given of how women weren’t waiting for policy to be agreed upon by governments, but rather, they were marching in and doing what needed to be done “whether or not they had heard of COP18 or even climate change.” We were cautioned about the power of language that sometimes says unintended things; in particular, concern was expressed about how often people refer to women as being “vulnerable” to or “victims” of climate change.  I ended up staying for several of the events.

Cecelia from Kenya whose work in climate adaptation was noted by Mary Robinson 

The artist's statement for the large spider sculpture in the QNCC
All panelists seemed to agree that we need to change the narrative “to put more humanity in our hearts so that we can change the situation”, to put a human face on climate change – both its impacts and opportunities.  In other words, policy makers need to understand the urgency as indicated by the science, but they also need to be aware of the climate-related predicaments people are faced with daily around the globe.   I recently read an op-ed that said we should drag all the Parties (negotiators) out for a walk in nature (I wish I could find this piece again).  There were several references to the disconnect between Party delegates sitting in air-conditioned convention centers making policy decisions and the people whose lives and livelihoods these policies impact. Most importantly, it was stressed that we we can’t just focus on the doom and gloom stories; Secretariat Figueres cautioned that these types of stories are not inspiring and won’t “take people to the next step of innovative solutions.”

This was not a day of angry feminism, but rather one that led to a strong a call for on-the-ground support for real people — men and women— and a call to maximize the potential of all in adapting to and helping to solve the challenge of climate change. One slogan of the conference is “7 Billion People.  One Challenge.”  How appropriate.

On November 29th, the secretariat received a proposal from the European Union which is now titled Draft decision [-/CP.18] “Promoting gender equality and improving participation of women in UNFCCC negotiations and in the representation of Parties in bodies established pursuant to the Convention or the Kyoto Protocol.”[3]  That title reflects a lot of COP jargon that essentially translates to a proposal to advance the goals of gender balance and gender-sensitive (or gender-smart) climate policy.  The Subsidiary Body for Implementation or SBI will have to finalize language on this tonight (December 1st) and vote to move this to be formally adopted by the Conference of the Parties (more jargon, I know).  But this might very well be one of the first agreements coming out of COP18.
Sunset in Doha

[1] The Future We Want, outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, adopted on 12 June 2012 (United Nationals General Assembly resolution A/RES/66/288. paragraph 237).  See also the focus on women in the U.N. Millennium Development Goals at


  1. See also Marla's post on Gender Day and the inspiration she experienced:

  2. Were the roles of women in the early UNFCCC meetings less influential than now?

    I presume that in countries less developed than the United States women play critical roles in the well-being of their families. Recent food and water shortages have only increased the stress of raising a family in an under-developed nation. The women in these societies have a first hand account of the destruction caused by the changing climate, and can offer valuable insight of the effects global warming have on their lives.

  3. Grant, when you look at the delegations from various countries from around the world, the process is still male dominated. I do believe the situation has improved and at the U.N. level, there has been strong female leadership. But as you note, the women from developing nations are feeling the impacts of climate change in a very real and direct way and yet have little say in policies being negotiated far away.

  4. Very encouraging, especially in that the approach you describe acknowledges contributions by men and women. Rather than being divisive, it is unifying - no one is made wrong, and everyone's valued for contributions they bring to the "table."

  5. A statement from Mary Robinson on the "Doha Miracle" (a "gender COP):