Put gender lens in fighting climate change

Put gender lens in fighting climate change

Date: June 29, 2020
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Gibson Mhaka

Bulawayo, 29 June: The World Environment Day went unnoticed for Sibongile Zulu (56) from Sibombo Village in Lupane, which like other districts in Matabeleland North province, has suffered from increasing temperatures, uneven distribution and variability of rainfall and drought.

Ironically, Zulu whose life is inextricably tied to the use of the environment for daily support and livelihood professed ignorance of the event which is celebrated on 5 June in over 100 countries and encourages worldwide awareness and action for the protection of the environment.

The theme for World Environment Day 2020 which came at a time when Zimbabwe and the whole world is grappling with the current primary menace (Covid-19) was: ‘Time for Nature,’ with a focus on its role in providing the essential infrastructure that supports life on Earth and human development.

“I never heard about the day (World Environment). Although, there had been repeated calls from our traditional leaders for us to practise culturally appropriate methods which help support pastures, forests, watersheds, households and our community, they (traditional leaders) never inform us about it.

“This is because as women, we are being side-lined in all forms of decision-making from household and community level up to national levels,”  Zulu says to loud approval from other women.

Zulu’s story is not unusual. She is one of the several million stories of women across Zimbabwe and in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) particularly those in the rural areas who are bearing the brunt of climate change yet they are not well suited to find solutions to prevent further degradation and adapt to the changing climate.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate that rural women in Zimbabwe typically work 16–18 hours a day, spending at least 49 percent of their time on agricultural activities and about 25 percent on domestic activities.

As climate change fuels extreme weather and threatens harvests, not enough is being done to boost the resilience of women in rural communities like Zulu – who are already being disadvantaged by traditional inequalities.

Research on the relationship between gender and environment has shown that progress on women’s participation and representation in global environmental policies, programmes and projects has been slow and uneven.

This, however, calls for the need to expedite the participation of women in natural resource conservation since they are the worst affected people.

There is no doubt that since women are among the most vulnerable or are often in the frontline in respect to the impacts of a changing climate, for a more gender-equal world, lessons should be drawn from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic where women are at the front and centre of the pandemic’s response and recovery.

Indications from COVID-19 response shows that the pandemic can be a model for climate action by ensuring that actors engaged on climate action regard the current experience with COVID-19 as a warning that failure to invest in the infrastructure and systems needed to respond to change costs lives.

Evidence also shows that disease outbreak like Covid-19 affects women and men differently, that they exacerbate inequalities for girls and women, who are also often the hardest hit, and that women play an outsize role responding to crises, including as frontline healthcare and social workers, caregivers at home, and as mobilisers in their communities.

Like the response to COVID-19, there is also need by SADC countries to put gender lens in their fight against the impact of climate change and environmental degradation, by ensuring the unique needs of women particularly those from the marginalised communities are addressed, and their unique expertise is leveraged.

It is important to note that whilst COVID-19 impacts will eventually lessen, climate change places an increasing pressure on socio-ecological systems, and will continue to do so even more in the years to come, hence the need to include proven best practices such as gender-responsive analysis, budgeting and auditing processes, and a gender marker for tracking.

Since there is global movement to tackle the effects of climate change and conserve the environment in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 5 and 13 which address issues of gender equality and climate action respectively, women should be on the frontline of change.

Tackling climate change is, undoubtedly, women’s business but the reality is that in many countries in Southern Africa, women are under-represented in decision-making and in areas relevant to climate change adaptation.

The 2018  SADC Gender Protocol Barometer recognises that many law makers in the region have still not mainstreamed gender in SADC sustainable development strategies.

So as countries in Southern Africa ramp up their disaster risk management and work to strengthen community recovery and resilience, women should not just be considered victims and survivors who need special protection and assistance but as forces for change who can be relied on to represent themselves within their communities and at the highest decision-making levels.

Commending women as vital agents for the management and sustainable use of land and biodiversity resources, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Inger Andersen says on Twitter: “Transforming the balance of power and working for gender equality is key to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. This is the ask for #GenerationEquality and it involves all of us.”

From his observation it is clear that adopting gender-responsive approaches makes environmental interventions longer-lasting and more transformative, from policies and programming related to the impact of climate change to issues around access to energy, water, sanitation, land and other natural resources.

According to UN Women, in order to catalyse systemic and lasting change, there is a need to vastly increase financing for gender equality, to harness the potential of technology and innovation and ensure that development is inclusive of women and girls who face multiple forms of discrimination.

Gender and environment experts are also on record advising governments particularly those from developing countries to ensure an enabling environment for the increased participation and substantive inputs of women in decision and policy-making in local, community, national, regional and international institutions, processes, negotiations and policies related to climate change issues.

Commissioner Naome Chimbetete of the Zimbabwe Gender Commission (ZGC) who is also a renowned environmental expert says issues of equal ownership, access, and right to use of natural resources such as water and land by women has always presented a situation of inequality and pain to most women in Zimbabwe and in the SADC region.

“The majority of women especially those who reside in the rural areas where they depend on natural resources for energy, food and water are being sidelined in activities or processes that can enhance their sustainable livelihoods,” says Commissioner Chimbetete.

She said the ZGC was playing a critical role in promoting gender equality through monitoring compliance among stakeholders and mainstreaming it in all sectors.

“In relation to environmental degradation, the Zimbabwe Gender Commission has established a Thematic Working Group on Gender, Environment and Climate Change which consists of experts from various organisations on environmental issues who provide technical assistance and capacity in dealing with gender and environment matters.

“The commission will also continue to engage communities through local leadership and educate them on environmental protection strategies for sustainable use.

“It will also organise mobile campaigns to raise awareness and inform the public on impacts of environmental degradation on their livelihoods and ensuring that women are armed with information that promotes good practices for sustainable development,” she says.

Climate change and environment expert Anna Brazier acknowledges that environmental depletion and climate induced changes increased pressures on women’s time, income, health, nutrition and social support systems.

“In developing countries women more likely than men to be exposed to and impacted by the negative effects of climate change hazards including drought, floods, storms and heat waves which will disrupt agriculture and many other activities that women are traditionally responsible for.

“When successive droughts make agriculture unproductive, male household members are likely to migrate to urban areas or to other countries in search of work. This increases the labour, domestic and often economic burden of the remaining female family members but does not necessarily increase their decision-making power making them more vulnerable particularly if remittances are not forthcoming,” said Brazier.

Director for climate change in the Environment Ministry Washington Zhakata also admits that women are still under-represented in environment and climate change de­cision-making bodies at both national and regional levels.

“Women are not equally repre­sented within committees, agencies and institu­tions relevant to environmental issues and climate change. Mitigation strategies are also not gender neutral. The Government and Zimbabwe Gender Commission are, however, doing a lot to ensure that women are part of environmental and climate change decision-making institutions.

“As a ministry, we have been mobilising resources to conduct awareness campaigns to sensitise women on how they can have access to and control of environmental resources, as well as on the effects and impacts of climate change and disasters. But that doesn’t mean that men are excluded,” says Zhakata.

Meanwhile, SADC Member States’ commitment to gender equality and involvement of women in environmental management as a prerequisite for poverty reduction, and sustainable development is affirmed by their ratification to various international and regional protocols on gender equality.

For example, the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development which spells that men and women should have equal access to environmentally and socially sustainable agricultural inputs, markets and climate-resilient farming technologies and climate information.

Given the above observations it is clear that effective climate change adaptation should bring everyone to the table, recognising the value of their knowledge and their potential as agents of change.

Picture by Eliah Sauchoma

The writer Gibson Mhaka is a reporter with B-Metro under the Zimpapers stable and has also undergone a training on SRHR courtesy of Gender Links. This story is published as part of Gender Links’ series on Gender and the Coronavirus.

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