Guest blog: the Importance of Gender-Specific Climate Change Initiatives in Latin America

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Guest blog by Cristina Cordova, an aspiring environmental advocacy professional with a Master’s degree in Global Environmental Policy from American University. She is currently conducting climate change policy research for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Latin America team.

I recently wrote about Mexico’s newly-released Special Program on Climate Change (Programa Especial de Cambio Climático, or PECC), the country’s short-term planning instrument for climate change initiatives. As I noted in the blog, the latest stage of the PECC incorporates the issue of gender and climate change after each major climate change objective. This caught my attention and I realized how often I have noticed the involvement of gender in climate change research and policies. This left me with several burning questions: why is gender so important to climate change? How does the international community approach this aspect of climate change? And how should they do so?

A good place to start to understand why incorporating gender into climate change initiatives is essential is the United Nations' Women Watch. They say: 

“Women form a disproportionately large share of the poor in countries all over the world. Women in rural areas in developing countries are highly dependent on local natural resources for their livelihood, because of their responsibility to secure water, food and energy for cooking and heating. The effects of climate change, including drought, uncertain rainfall and deforestation, make it harder to secure these resources. By comparison with men in poor countries, women face historical disadvantages, which include limited access to decision-making and economic assets that compound the challenges of climate change.”

Many women in impoverished nations live every day surrounded by power struggles and conflicting social norms. In addition to those daily challenges, they are particularly vulnerable to climate change and climate related disasters. For example, women are often discouraged from learning coping strategies and lifesaving skills such as how to climb trees or swim. In some cultures, women are not allowed to evacuate their homes without male consent and their cultural dress may inhibit them from certain levels of mobility during a crisis.

In addition, many health risks that are likely to be aggravated by climate change show gender differentials. Natural disasters such as droughts, floods and storms kill more women than men. For example, the WHO reports that more women died than men in the estimated 70,000 deaths caused by the 2003 European heat wave. In places where the socioeconomic status of women is particularly low, this disparity increases. In regards to climate change migration, there are strong concerns involving female climate refugees and the spread of HIV and disease.

This is a pressing issue for Latin America – a region particularly vulnerable to climate change that results in a variety of negative effects on the region’s economic sectors. The Inter-American Development Bank predicts that yearly economic damages caused by climate change are estimated to increase and these will reach an annual cost of approximately $100 billion by 2050. Fortunately, several countries in the region are already addressing the particular impacts of climate change on women in their mitigation and adaptation efforts. As I mentioned above, Mexico’s PECC 2014-2018 offers gender related cross-objectives listed in after each major climate change objective. Peru’s Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Action Plan also has projects that include gender equality. One example is the German-funded project called Adapting to Climate Change in the Andean Region project, an agricultural climate adaptation project which sought to improve systematic development planning, increase awareness of the vulnerabilities of agriculture to climate change and increase technical knowledge and know-how to support local farmers. The project was completed in 2013 and reports that its results has had “positive effects on gender equality”.  

In Bolivia, the ‘Democratizing knowledge for rural empowerment’ project focused on climate change, agriculture and the female farmer, recognizing the need to focus and improve on the productive farm work typically assigned to women. In Bolivia’s communities surrounding the Lake Titicaca, the word ‘yapuchiri’ means ‘sower’ in the Aymara language. The yapuchiris are local specialist vocational farmers dedicated to agricultural learning. Female yapuchiris are responsible for storing a wide variety of seeds, and have taken on a leading role in negotiating long-term market access for local produce.  This project helped to build the local women’s knowledge and as a result, the female yapuchiris analytical capabilities and knowledge of local seeds have helped to cope with different climate risks.

These are just a few examples, but it is clear that the international community should include gender in all climate change initiatives. Again, to quote the UNWW:

“It is therefore imperative that a gender analysis be applied to all actions on climate change and that gender experts are consulted in climate change processes at all levels, so that women's and men’s specific needs and priorities are identified and addressed.”

Climate change affects everything – it is all inclusive.  The international community should therefore approach gender in climate change the same way adaptation programs are urging Latin American countries to approach climate change: by integrating gender into climate change initiatives on all levels, the same way climate change is becoming integrated into everyday life, and political and economic choices.

Gender is not something one normally considers when thinking about climate change. The environment, our planet, our wildlife and our natural resources are what come to mind first, for me at least.  However, climate change will affect not only our environment, Earth and oceans, but the international community as well.  Men, women and children will experience hardships and will struggle. The climate change threat has many possibilities and those include the exacerbation of equality issues. Think about it.