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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: No more denying: climate change action and gender equality and women’s empowerment are two sides of the same coin

By Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women | 23 November 2016

The adoption of the Paris Agreement in December 2015 at COP 21 (the twenty-first session of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) was a historic moment for global commitment to justice for Climate Action with Gender Equality. Six years ago when UN Women and the women and gender constituency started campaigning for it, we were met with widespread skepticism about the linkage. It was as if we were talking about it from Venus and they from Mars – not from our one Planet Earth. Fast forward to 2015-2016 where there is recognition that half of humanity – women and girls on Earth are disproportionately and differentially impacted but also are on the front lines of climate action and must be validated, empowered and supported.

The entry into force of the Paris Agreement on 4th November 2016 with major countries ratifying it in less than a year after its adoption surprised many. Now governments must move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, promote lifestyle changes to reduce wastes, protect forests and oceans as carbon sinks. These are all actions to lower greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to the global ambition of keeping temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Necessary Action

These are actions that are necessary to keep our planet habitable for all of us, our children, and our great grandchildren. The question of sustainability will depend on the successful implementation of such actions and on the linkage to SDG 5 to “Achieving Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls”.

UN Women has for long advocated for gender-responsive climate policy and actions. Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls have been featured and recognized as a critical driver to sustainable development and in particular to tackle climate change.

When the environment and natural resources are protected, women and girls are among the greatest beneficiaries – women and girls who in many contexts and settings are in close contact with nature, depend on the bounty and gifts of nature and are empowered by their ecosystems.

It is well recognized that women and girls are leaders of communities and households. They ensure that there is sufficient heat, water and food for their families and neighbors. They become solar engineers and fog water collectors. They practice sustainable farming and use traditional knowledge for the sustainable management of resources. They are the first responders when disasters strike. They are very actively part of the solutions, although in many ways constrained to act.

Yet and as stressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), in its report in 2014, there are differential impacts of climate change on men and women which “arise from their distinct roles in society, which either enhance or constrain other dimensions of inequality, risk perceptions, and the nature of response to hazards.”

For example, climate change has significant impacts on food insecurity, displacement and loss of livelihood, conflict, sexual and gender-based violence, human trafficking and sexual exploitation, diseases and other health problems, sometimes leading to death. All these are felt and experienced by women and girls most heavily.

Climate change and gender inequalities 

The IPCC also noted how climate change contributes to perpetuating existing gender inequalities. Gender stereotypes, women’s limited decision-making power and mobility as well as unequal access to important resources—including basic services, financial resources, land, water and sanitation, education, information and technology—compound women’s vulnerability to climate change impacts.

These constraints also impede gender-responsive disaster preparedness and responses and exacerbate existing gender disparities and inequalities. Women facing multiple forms of discrimination, including indigenous women, women in urban slums and rural areas, women migrants and refugees and women with disabilities, are particularly affected.

Natural disasters transcend borders, and both developing and developed countries are just as vulnerable to extreme weather events and changing patterns and so are the women in both societies. Over 60 million people are still feeling the effects of 2015-2016 El Niño, with women from Central America, East Africa, the Pacific and Southern Africa being the most affected.

The economic losses from Hurricane Katrina, Wilma and Irene, hitting the Atlantic region, revealed the greater vulnerability to physical assault and greater economic challenges faced by low income and poor people, the majority of whom are women, and served as important lessons for Hurricane Sandy as well.

Studies done following Hurricane Katrina found that diminished access to shelter and transportation further exacerbated the increased rates of violence and sexual assault, and the disaster had long-term disproportionate impacts on women’s workforce participation and gender gap in wages.

Women must be at the decision-making table

As countries shift to low-carbon economies and promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, women must be at the decision-making table. Women have been contributing to climate mitigation and adaptation in many sectors, including forestry, agriculture, renewable energy technology and transportation.

Ms. Wandee Khunchornyakong has led Thailand on a low-carbon growth path as CEO of the country’s largest solar power generation company, Solar Power Company Group, as well as helped to unlock private financing for photovoltaic capacity and provide clean energy jobs for women. Ms. Mindy Lubber, CEO of Ceres (USA), formed and leads the Ceres’ Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP), to mobilize leading companies to integrate environmental concerns in core business strategies. Ms. Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO of Acumen, works with partners to encourage entrepreneurs, impact investors and philanthropists to promote gender equality and empower women through social enterprise. The women of the movement One Million Women in Australia promotes sustainable practices by pledging to take small steps in their daily lives to save energy, reduce waste, cut pollution and lead change.

We have enough evidence of deaths and suffering by women and girls in the climate change disaster contexts as of their being solution providers. There are enough examples to make the case that women and girls and gender-responsive policies and measures should be part of all climate solutions and responses.

From a gender-blind United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted in 1992, we now have the Paris Agreement, which calls on governments when taking action on climate change to “promote, respect and consider their obligations on human rights, … gender equality and the empowerment of women”.

COP 22 and the ‘gender action plan’

In Marrakech at COP 22, also dubbed the “Implementation COP”, another breakthrough was reached – Parties to the UNFCCC have adopted the most far-reaching decision to promote and advance gender equality and women’s empowerment in climate change actions.

Through a three-year work programme on gender, for the first time, a gender action plan for Parties’ climate change policies and actions will be formulated. This is to ensure that all work areas of the Convention and the Paris Agreement – mitigation, adaptation, finance, capacity-building, technology development and transfer, loss and damage, among others – will mainstream gender, take account of a gender perspective and empower women in climate policy and action by all governments and stakeholders.

Drawing on the existing women’s work and experience, the work programme will ensure that measures are in place to realize the still distant goal of gender balance, and enhance women’s participation and engagement in the UNFCCC process. Capacity-building for women delegates will be enhanced, as well the understanding of gender-responsive climate policy.

Accountability mechanisms are put in place, including regular reporting by constituted bodies and implementing entities – including financial mechanisms reporting to the COP, such as the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) – on how they are meeting gender-responsive mandates in their work.

Knowledge and evidence will be further built with requests to the UNFCCC secretariat to prepare technical papers and reports, on women’s participation and entry points for integrating gender considerations in work streams under the UNFCCC.

The mandates and call to action have been laid out with strong gender equality components. The real work of implementation begins now. National governments, UN system organizations, regional and sub-regional, as well as intergovernmental organizations, civil society and women’s organizations, think tanks, scientists and the academic community, foundations and the private sector should seize this historic opportunity. Let us all work together at the community, local, national, regional and global levels to turn this call to impactful climate actions for, by and with women and girls on the ground and for the future generations.


Ms. Lakshmi Puri (India) is Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, responsible for the Bureau for Intergovernmental Support, UN System Coordination, and Strategic Partnerships. She was the Acting Head of UN Women from March to August 2013.

Ms. Puri has multifaceted experience in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, negotiations and advocacy spanning a wide range of issues, including peace and security, human rights, sustainable development, climate change, gender equality, trade and development and humanitarian action.  She has led UN Women’s action in successfully advocating for the prioritization and integration of gender equality and the empowerment of women in intergovernmental processes and outcomes, and in its enhancing its convening power at the highest political level to unprecedented levels. She steered partnership building with key constituencies and stakeholders, including civil society, the private sector, academia and other stakeholders. She provided the vision and drive for many of UN Women’s public campaigns, including UNITE to end violence against women and Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality. She has also promoted coordination and accountability of the United Nations system for gender equality. She has been a thought leader, a passionate and committed global advocate and has been keenly engaged in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment across all regions and sectors.

She was previously Director of the UN Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States and a Director and Acting Deputy Secretary-General at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Prior to joining the UN, Ms. Puri was an Ambassador and had a distinguished 28-year career with the Indian Foreign Service. 

Any opinions Expressed in "Executive Perspectives" are those of external parties and not those of Thomson Reuters.

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