Where are the women at COP26?

Amelia Womack, Deputy Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, reflects on COP26’s Gender day. Despite being on the front line of the climate crisis, women are outnumbered within the walls of the summit.

Women's day at COP26

UNFCCC_COP26_9Nov21_AdvancingGender_KiaraWorth-17 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Amelia Womack

Yesterday, for one day, COP26 focused on gender equality and the participation of women and girls in climate action. Given over half the global population are women, shouldn’t every day be gender equality day at climate conferences?

Women and girls are on the front line of the climate crisis. They are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change, while at the same time often facing threats and intimidation when taking climate action. While women’s equality and empowerment is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, it wasn’t until 2017, at COP22, that a Gender Action Plan to support gender-responsive climate action was adopted. Which begs the question, what took you so long? 

The aim of the plan was to ensure that women influence climate change decisions and are represented equally with men in all aspects of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. One look at COP26 tells you there’s a long way to go. When the week began with more than 130 presidents and prime ministers posing for a group photo, fewer than 10 were women. And then there have been the panels, made up of a majority of men, with some even exclusively men.  

Yet women aren’t absent from Glasgow; far from it. Those deciding the degree of climate chaos we descend into in the coming decades may be mainly old and male, but on the streets, the protesters demanding climate justice – now – are largely young and female.  One of those young women has become a global celebrity. Greta Thunberg’s lonely and defiant school strike outside the Swedish Parliament went on to spur the global Fridays for Future climate movement. Greta is just one of many teenage young women around the globe fighting for climate justice. Others include Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, Artemisa Xakriabá from the Amazonian rainforest and Isra Hirsi who co-founded the US Youth Climate Strike.

And I have met plenty of women from around the world facing daily struggles in the face of the climate emergency. I spoke to a woman from India where women campaigning to protect their forests are at risk of arrest, rape and murder. Similarly, women’s rights activists in Brazil have put themselves in danger by spearheading campaigns to halt invasions of their land by loggers and miners. Women also face the repercussions of corporate polluters – those very corporations that are responsible for creating the climate crisis. In Ogoniland, at the heart of Shell’s decade-old oil spill sites, thousands of women have faced devastating pollution, land grabs and violence, making it almost impossible to survive and sustain their families.

Restricted land rights, lack of access to financial resources, limited education and training opportunities, and lack of involvement in political decision-making mean women are often prevented from fulfilling their potential in tackling the climate crisis and other environmental challenges. Yet they have a crucial role to play in climate change adaptation and mitigation. Their knowledge and experiences provide insights into changing environmental conditions and they bring forward practical solutions.

It was a member of the Nigerian Government I spoke to here in Glasgow who said to me that if you ‘give a woman money then you give jobs to a community’. This backs up the Green Party policy of giving money directly to women to tackle inequality and environmental destruction rather than to governments. 

And when it comes to climate finance, investments that prioritise women can have multiple benefits. For example, food preparation is a task overwhelmingly undertaken by women. Especially so in the countries of the Global South where cooking relies on solid fuels such as coal, wood, charcoal and animal dung. The use of these dirty fuels not only contributes to carbon emissions but also endangers the health of women and their families. So a win-win, in terms of both emissions and health, would be a massive investment in efficient stoves, or even better, solar cookers.   

Evidence repeatedly shows that empowering women and advancing gender equality can deliver solutions in a variety of sectors, including food, economic security and health. It can also lead to more climate-friendly decision making at household, community and national levels. It is vital that COP26 recognises the important contributions women can make as decision-makers and how their involvement can lead to successful, long-term solutions to climate change. 

Women are a powerful voice, probably the most powerful voice, on the streets of Glasgow. Just think what they could achieve if they were on the inside making decisions on the future of our planet.