Notes from the Field

First-Ever Research Tool for Measuring Gender Equality in Environmental Governance

October 2, 2013

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Global Gender Office enjoys worldwide recognition for the extensive work it has carried out over the past 12 years addressing gender equality issues within the environmental sector. Since the 1990s, governments have established new international mandates ensuring that gender equality and women’s empowerment are central to environmental decision-making and sustainable development. However, the lack of a mechanism to monitor and measure government progress has contributed to little or no implementation of these mandates.

Erosion on river banks in Bangladesh

A woman stands on eroded river banks in southern Bangladesh. Environmental degradation and climate change are making it harder for women to secure depleting resources, such as food, water, and energy, in order to manage and provide for their family. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Strategic responses for environmental protection must recognize that women face unique threats related to their social status and environmental responsibilities. For example, in South and Southeast Asia, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that over 60 percent of the female work force is engaged in agriculture; although only 1 in 10 own the land they farm. In conflict, post-conflict, or natural disaster recovering societies, women often have to travel longer and longer distances to gather water or firewood, which contributes to their higher vulnerability to violence. Girls on average face greater pressure than boys to drop out of school before the secondary education level to help their mothers with the increasing burdens of household tasks as the scarcity of natural resources and non-renewable biomass fuels worsen. This extra time spent for women and girls in developing countries on growing food and preparing meals means they have less time available for engaging in educational or entrepreneurial activities.

The reality is that environmental degradation and climate change are impacting communities – and different groups within those communities – disproportionately, and many of the factors which shape such susceptibility are not strictly related to the dynamics of the natural world alone. These development challenges are making it harder for women to secure depleting resources, such as food, water, and energy, in order to manage and provide for their family, as well as compound the social inequities they experience that prevent them from becoming influential participants in their societies and the global green movement. This cycle of inequality undermines the social capital on which the least developed countries can draw to deal effectively with environmental protection and sustainable development initiatives. The empowerment of women is therefore paramount to minimizing these insecurities that women experience as a result of environmental degradation and the negative effects of climate change.

The upcoming launch of IUCN’s Environment and Gender Index (EGI) provides the first quantitative data on how 72 developed and developing nations are translating gender and environment mandates from the three Rio Conventions (UNFCCC, CBD, and UNCCD) and CEDAW into their national policy and planning. The hope is that the resulting information (to be made available to the public on November 19 at COP19 in Warsaw, Poland) will help policymakers, civil society, and practitioners evaluate progress and identify where the gaps lie in achieving gender equality in the environmental context.

This index will be particularly useful for development organizations like The Asia Foundation, which have cross-cutting programs in both women’s empowerment and environmental governance. The global environmental movement can serve as an important conduit to increase women’s access to land and health rights, as well as to technology, information, and leadership opportunities. Likewise, actively involving all societal groups in conservation and climate change work can make progress in preserving and protecting the natural environment more sustainable and reduce vulnerabilities specific to women. Having a solid understanding of the socio-economic and political dimensions of what causes both people and the planet to become vulnerable will aid in planning these effective strategies that can better empower gender equality in programs that combat environmental degradation and climate change.

Issues of control over natural resources, access to information and technology, and relative power in environmental decision-making play a role in determining the capacity of successful environmental stewardship. The absence of these rights and privileges is at the heart of barriers that prevent communities from productively engaging in or benefiting from environmental conservation and/or climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. It is not surprising then that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded in their most recent Summary for Policymakers that the most vulnerable populations to both problems are the world’s poorest people in the least-developed countries, of which 70 percent are women, or those involved in climate-sensitive subsistence farming or other agricultural industries, of which females make up larger shares of the workforce.

For the first-time, the IUCN’s new EGI will allow policymakers and practitioners to better evaluate the depth of correlation between these socio-economic and political indicators in terms of women’s access to natural resources, and measure progress of policy implementation over time.

To receive a copy of the EGI once it is released, visit environmentgenderindex.org/contact.

Editor’s note: We are pleased to announce that the author, Kourtnii Brown, program officer for Environment Programs, is involved in an initiative on behalf of The Asia Foundation that has been nominated for the prestigious Katerva Award.  Brown serves on the Expert Panel of the Environment and Gender Index (EGI), which monitors gender equality and women’s empowerment in the environmental arena and is a project of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  The Katerva Award has been called “the Nobel of sustainability” by the Reuters Foundation, and with this nomination recognizes the EGI as a new innovation that will accelerate the future of sustainability. Please join us in congratulating Ms. Brown and the EGI’s efforts to simultaneously advance environmental efforts and gender equality.

Brown can be reached at kbrown@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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