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Through a gender lens: climate change

Posted on 31/07/2019
By Dizzanne Billy

On my last night in Jamaica, I visited Hellshire Beach in Portmore with a group of friends. I had read the stories of the degradation of this beautiful local beach and imagined the decimation of sandcastles as the sea crept up the shore and onto the paved areas. Yet still, I was unprepared for what I saw.

Sargassum lapped at my legs as I stood in the water: visual proof of everything we’d discussed during our time in Jamaica, as participants in the Commonwealth Foundation’s second meeting on the intersection between gender and climate change.

The background

Following up on its exploratory 2018 discussion with over 40 civil society leaders from all over the Caribbean Commonwealth, the Commonwealth Foundation collaborated with the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Environmental Facility and the Institute of Gender and Development Studies (University of the West Indies) to host a second meeting in Jamaica.

‘It is a matter of fact that the climate change burden is unevenly distributed, and so are the resources to ease the strain of climate change-induced losses and damages.’

In the 2018 meeting, participants indicated a need for capacity building. In response to this, the Commonwealth Foundation hosted the second meeting to introduce and open up participatory involvement in the development of a Climate Change and Gender Guidance Tool. This tool was set to strengthen the capacity of civil society organisations in the Caribbean and to understand the linkages between gender and climate change. It was assessed as a good tool to integrate gender perspectives in their work and use gender analysis to support gender-sensitive policies and programmes.

During the meeting in late July this year, we all shared knowledge from each of our countries and discussed best practices for investigating and addressing climate change through a gendered lens.

Delegates at the first gender and climate change discussion in Barbados in May 2018

Lesson learned: uneven distribution

It is a matter of fact that the climate change burden is unevenly distributed, and so are the resources to ease the strain of climate change-induced losses and damages.

For some, climate change remains a distant rhetoric, a hoax. For the developing world however, it is a harsh and undeniable daily reality. Case in point: despite Jamaica’s miniscule contribution to global climate change, the sea-level rise we witnessed on Hellshire Beach is just one climate impact casting an ominous shadow over the island.

Michael Taylor, a physicist and Director of the Climate Studies Group, confirmed to the Jamaican Gleaner, that ‘the loss of beach is significant; it is estimated at 0.26 metres per year for Jamaica, with sea level rise and post-storm events. And the beach retreats at about 100 times the rate of sea level rise.’

In other words, the island is losing land and coastline, which negatively affects the livelihoods of citizens. This is a truth for small island states around the world. Regardless of the abounding observable and scientific proof, few resources aimed at dealing with climate change trickle down to the grassroots, indigenous, and community organisations, and the resources that do are dispensed at a sluggish pace.

Lesson learned: women need resources too

Addressing the unequal dissemination of resources in Caribbean society is crucial to achieving holistic climate action and policies. A major takeaway from the discussion was that climate change impacts people differently: in terms of socioeconomic circumstances, disabilities, age, and gender.

It is known that investing in women and girls creates a positive domino effect. However, in the Caribbean the limited resources available are unequally distributed between men and women. This is also because in the Caribbean, the majority of women still hold traditional female gender roles.

‘I believe that if just one voice is muted, then we are failing to respond to climate change as we should: together.’

But when natural disaster strikes, women are usually the first responders. They lead disaster risk-reduction efforts at the household and community levels, and contribute to post recovery by addressing the early recovery needs of their families and the community.

Women are also often the family members that secure food supply to their families.

According to the United Nations, women comprise approximately 43% of the agricultural labour force. When hurricanes strike more regularly, or when drought persists and scorches the land, where does this leave the women who depend on the land and sea for food security?

Providing these women with the same resources available to men can positively influence climate adaptation and sustainable development efforts.

Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze starred in an exclusive performance staged to conincide with the discussion in Jamaica. Women Who Walk With Water focussed on climate issues facing the Caribbean and the role of art in inspiring these urgent conversations.

A history of unequal power distribution

The history of the Caribbean region has contributed to various forms of inequality. However, gender is a crosscutting issue that speaks to the different roles and responsibilities that have been assigned during interactions in the family, school, religion, peers, and the media. As such, it is particularly important for civil society leaders to understand the importance of gender as they seek to address climate change impacts.

Engaging in gender analysis is about understanding power and who makes the decisions in society. Who decides on the distribution of resources and who decides the composition of leadership on a community and national level? Is it representative?

The unsweetened truth is that in the Caribbean, institutions reinforce and reflect pre-existing inequality, despite commitments made to equality and human rights.

Sandra C.A. Ferguson from the Agency for Rural Transformation (ART), Grenada, provides feedback on the Climate Change and Gender Guidance Tool at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in Jamaica

All voices must be heard

Gender inequalities can create vulnerabilities, which must be considered when planning for adaptation to climate change and natural disaster-risk management. Observing the world and climate change from a gendered perspective will boost awareness of how gender intersects with other factors like age, race, class, religion, political affiliation, and education. When solutions to climate change address these different realities, they are more effective and their impact ripples throughout society.

During one of my last days in Jamaica, as the bus driver sped up and down the narrow roads of the mountainous Nine Mile, I reflected on how gender would be considered in the upcoming 25th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 25). COP 25 is set to evaluate and report on the progress of the implementation of the Gender Action Plan. Given that women face greater disadvantages in their ability to respond to climate change impacts, is the Caribbean ready to overcome its systemic and unequal distribution of power and resources, and create opportunities for the survival of all? Because I believe that if just one voice is muted, then we are failing to respond to climate change as we should: together.

Dizzanne Billy is the Caribbean Outreach Manager at Climate Tracker. 


Convening practitioners to improve understanding of the impact of climate change on women in the Caribbean

The Caribbean is on the frontline of climate change, and the degree to which people are affected by the impact is shaped by many factors. It is vital that policy solutions consider the complex array of vulnerabilities and include less heard voices in decision-making processes.