This December, the international community will have a historic opportunity to reach an agreement on a climate change plan and to adopt a new post-2015 sustainable development agenda.
COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, will, for the first time in over 20 years of United Nations (UN) negotiations, aim to achieve a global, legally binding agreement on climate with the aim of keeping global warming below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the conference is expected to engage 50,000 participants in this discussion on climate.
Roughly 25,000 of these participants will include official delegates from various government and UN agencies, as well as intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
In previous years, the UN identified the following sectors as vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change: agriculture and food security, biodiversity and ecosystems, water resources, human health, human settlements and migration patterns, and energy, transport and industry.
In many of these contexts, women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men.
In fact, a 2007 study found that natural disasters are more likely to kill women than men, and that this disparity is largest where women’s socioeconomic status is lowest.
This conference, while narrowly focused, presents an exciting opportunity to leverage desirable social transformations, like gender equality and female empowerment.
Beyond the primary hazards of climate change that affect men and women alike, women are further threatened due to “secondary impacts” associated with climate events.
For example, after a typhoon struck the Philippines in 2013, surviving women in evacuation shelters found themselves fighting for survival from rape, with many ultimately becoming victims of human trafficking.
A lack of independence and a lack of freedom to make household decisions constrain women’s abilities to adapt to climate change.
In the Philippines, many women did not have the freedom to decide when to evacuate or relocate — this decision was made by a husband or male relative.
Without their input, women were ultimately more vulnerable to the primary and secondary effects of climate change
In other parts of the world, where women are responsible for securing water, food and fuel for cooking, times of drought force women, young and old, to spend more time and energy collecting water and other resources.
As a result, young girls may have to drop out of school to assist their mothers with these tasks, perpetuating the cycle of inequity.
Additionally, in some circumstances, women have physical limitations, at no fault of their own, that make it more difficult for them to escape disasters. For example, women of certain cultures are not taught how to swim, and in other cultures traditional articles of clothing may inhibit a woman’s ability to run.
These aspects of culture should not be changed, but rather should be understood and taken into consideration when drafting an agreement. It is thus important for the international community to adopt an agreement that includes gender-responsive criteria this December.
This response needs to recognize the cultural, political and socio-economic limitations of a significant portion of the world population and correct the lack of concern for women in previous agreements.
Most importantly, while negotiating, women should not be seen as vulnerable individuals.
As Verona Collantes, an Intergovernmental Specialist for UN Women, states, “women are always portrayed as victims but women are not vulnerable … if they are given resources or decision making powers, women can show their skills and strengths.”
It is necessary to highlight the ways in which women can be valuable in their communities, especially during times of crisis.
Without the inclusion of gender in negotiations, any agreement that comes out of COP21 will be outdated and won’t reflect what women face today.