Speaking Truth to Power: Gender Day

The state of gender at the Conference of Parties(COP) is largely unchanged since I have been attending for the last 3 years since COP18 in Doha, Qatar. As countries are called upon to raise ambitions regarding emissions targets, Gender Day stands as a reminder that ambition must encompass more cross-cutting issues. Gender Day emerged at COP18 in Doha, Qatar and has since become an annual event. The day is filled with gender-themed side-events and high level sessions that serve as a vehicle for advancing conversations of gender equality within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Mary Robinson addresses the room at the high-level dialogue on Gender.

Mary Robinson addresses the room at the high-level dialogue on Gender.

The day started with the dedication of a tree planted in memory of Nobel Peace Prize winner, feminist, environmentalist, and human rights advocate Wangari Maathai. Gender Day at COP20 took a different tone than those of the past two years with Mary Robinson, UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, setting the mood at the high level panel for gender. Robinson acknowledged that gender equality has come a long way since the Beijing Declaration was adopted in 1995, but that there is still a long way to go. Robinson stated, “We need to continue to strengthen women’s rights and not let them backslide.” These remarks shortly followed the SBI decision on gender which was finalized on Friday, December 5th. The text denied the use of “gender equality” and instead utilizes the less impactful term “gender balance”. This means that low ambition for equitable gender participation will remain the norm within the UNFCCC in Lima and beyond. 

In the past two years, Gender Day has served as a platform for discussing women’s vulnerability to climate change without necessarily talking about how women contribute on an international scale. Although women are on the frontline of the impacts of climate change, there are not appropriate avenues for them to share their experiences and knowledge within the UNFCCC. Because of this, the side events and panels on Gender Day tend to be one of the few venues where women’s positive contributions can be heard within the conference. We need to re-center dialogue away from women as victims of climate change, but as key change and decision-makers. 

Side Event Panel discusses the impacts of energy extraction on communities in Georgia and the Amazon.

Side Event Panel discusses the impacts of energy extraction on communities in Georgia and the Amazon.

In order for Gender Day to fulfill its intended impact, the UNFCCC must fully recognize that gender equality is a human rights issue and address the institutional barriers that block progress. Gender Day must not only be about women, but should address the needs of all genders through gender responsive texts in the negotiations.

As Wangari Maathai said, “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness,” she said, “to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

I’m a woman, not a mythical creature.

That’s what it feels like, though. You hear stories of mythical creatures, but you never see them. The same phenomena can be seen with female-bodied party delegates.

People keep asking me “why are you even talking about gender at a climate change conference?” Well. Where do I even begin?

For background LISTEN to my interview with the lovely Angela Wiley which sums it up. 

Women are differently and more negatively impacted in every community by climate change and yet they are an extreme minority within the voices at the COP. To get what I mean, check out this WEDO report on women’s participation within the UNFCCC from 2008-2012.

While the “Doha Miracle”, Decision 23/CP.18 was a great step forward, there is still much to do. This week, the SBI reviewed and fleshed out this text, but did not come to an agreement. This, of course, was because of the United States. USA USA USA. It’s not exactly my favorite thing when my country’s national environmental council to the President’s chair says that gender is a priority so they put $5million into research with an index, but she does not acknowledge that they are part of the reason why gender equality is struggling in the COP.

Today was Gender Day in the COP. This means that an extraordinary amount of time, effort, and resources were put into having panels, sessions, luncheons, and special outside events about gender (well… women….). This also means that I spent a great chunk of my day worrying about getting my research done (AH!).

While I enjoy the idea of a gender day, I’m not very content with the messaging behind it. The work tends to be tokenizing and does not address system change and rather just cites statistics and tells the same stories. From what I’ve observed of the work done from the civil society side, white women often draft statements and then ask women of color to read them in plenaries. This means that women’s real experiences and voice is silenced for the narratives favored by the already dominant discourse.

My day started by attending the launch breakfast for the EGI. One of the first statements was “what better place to launch than Warsaw- whose symbol is the mermaid”. I’m not sure if I necessarily agree with that statement at all. To understand why, read my post about the legend of the mermaid.

And later that day an entire session was led on the subject of “what are your dreams” about gender equality where a song was sung not once, but twice. I appreciate whimsy in most aspects of my life, but in this case, I felt disenchanted in a sense. The UNFCCC Climate Negotiations are by no means a Disney movie. I can’t sing a little song to fill the green climate fund or defeat the Australian troll to allow advancements. Hell- there’s no prince here to save me, I’m being followed by a Stern looking villain who advocates for “responsible private investment”.

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Well, while we’re talking about dreams: I wish that gender day didn’t feel like a necessity. I don’t think that there should have to be a gender day with gimmicks and extra flair for people to care about the fact that women are not treated the same as men are in decision making bodies. I want respect and I want for this inequality to be addressed without people thinking that it’s not worth my time to care about. I want climate justice and what is climate justice without talking about gender differentiated impacts?

I’ve had many people in past few days asking why I would focus on gender (insinuating that because I’m working on gender issues at the COP in addition to following policy that I’m not doing something worthwhile). To me: it’s because I feel like there are so many amazing people working on other issues that I also support, that I need to highlight this very fundamental problem. I feel like if the culture of the negotiations can’t even be changed, how can we expect this body to take into account the interests of those most impacted by climate change  (*cough* women are included in that *cough*)?

Even now, the work being done within the UNFCCC looking at gender calls for the delegations to bring in more female delegates, but does not give the necessary tools to work with different cultures to increase the amount of women in domestic decision making roles. What will it take beyond policy text to have more gender equality within the UNFCCC? Is gender mainstreaming valid? What are the barriers keeping women from being involved (social, economic, cultural, personal)?

While I don’t think that numbers are necessarily an indicator of growing equality, I think that if we have to start somewhere that having more female and gender non-conforming(a concept too difficult for the UN to grapple) voices within the UNFCCC is a good start.

Fun fact: the same room, the same chairs, the same time: no women. All male discussion about what should be considered climate smart finance. If this isn’t an example enough of why gender is important at the COP, I don’t know what else to say.

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