BLOG | Gender equality has no time for the half-hearted

Gender equality has no time for the half-hearted

By Daniel Morchain, Climate Change Adaptation Global Advisor at Oxfam and ASSAR co-Principal Investigator.


Research to help dismantle stereotypes

Climate change plays a considerable role in shaping the ways women are or aren’t able to contribute to their own wellbeing and that of their loved ones. The climate change literature has so far done a disservice to feminist agendas by painting women as vulnerable, passive recipients, as well as by underestimating the importance of gender dynamics in reaching adaptation objectives. Climate change research has, thus, promoted a developmental narrative that’s disempowering for women and has failed to challenge the structural injustices that often keep women as frustrated outsiders looking in.

Research has the potential to contribute to a more nuanced and realistic understanding of how gender equality would make climate change adaptation efforts more effective. Our work on gender as part of the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) project, for instance, has focused on challenging some of these assumptions and misconceptions. To illustrate, some of our findings suggest that, beyond arguments of gender equality and human rights, in order to make efforts more effective, adaptation strategies need to address and challenge the systematic discrimination against women entrenched by patriarchy, as well as acknowledge and incorporate people’s aspirations in development plans. One way to promote the renegotiation of power relations is to increase women’s agency in decision making. At the household level, ASSAR research found that a focus on strengthening cooperation between household members, rather than channelling efforts through the head of household, tends to produce better adaptation outcomes.


From climate change and gender research to the global stage

One of my takeaways from attending the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62), organised by UN Women in New York was that the tension between the voices suggesting, on one hand, ‘let’s work within the boundaries of the system’ and those saying ‘we need to shake things up for real’ was striking. In this battle, one side seemed to focus on incremental tweaks to structures, the other on renewing mindsets; one promoting largely cosmetic and safe ideas, the other one desperate to redraw power maps.

Rebeca Grynspan from Costa Rica, a high-level UN representative, warned during CSW62 that progress on women’s rights remains at a high risk of being undermined. Despite the momentum created, for instance, by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, if women’s rights activists are not vigilant, the ruling political forces and the still predominant patriarchal systems will continue fighting to supress change and to undo hard-fought progress.

The global stage seemed to me to mirror accurately the power struggles and the assumptions we encountered in our research in ASSAR at local levels in Africa and in India.

The Sustainable Development Goals exemplify this state of affairs. The SDGs are, arguably, an attempt to work within existing architectures to generate breakthroughs in gender equality, among other development issues .Thanks partly to the contribution of civil society to their design, SDGs do reflect feminist principles.  But as Esquivel and Sweetman[1] rightly point out, the relevance of this framework will be determined not by how the goals are formulated, but by how they are implemented.

To really bridge the gap between official and activist positions, women’s rights must be at the core of all development work. That is not the case today, at least not when it comes to addressing the impacts of climate change. The portion of climate Official Development Assistance that has gender as its principal objective remains disappointingly small (it was only 3% in 2014)[2]. If gender equality efforts focus solely on SDG 5 (gender equality) and are deprioritised when addressing others, such as SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) or SDG 13 (climate action), then SDGs will mostly promote business as usual.

What ultimately matters in achieving deep-rooted change is for institutions and individuals to alter their ways of working and of seeing the world. As one speaker at CSW62 said: “We need to think about a national strategy from a gender perspective; not to include gender equality as an additional element of the strategy.” It’s all really about mindsets and about letting go of long-standing positions of power and benefit.


So how about my mindset?

ASSAR’s findings on gender and the CSW62 reinforced my belief that women’s rights agendas should never stick to instrumentalist goals alone; they need to seek transformation. Ignoring or avoiding issues like social norms, power, identity, values and aspirations will make change feel foreign and distant to the people that most need to see advances on gender equality.

Understanding the problematic under this intersectionality lens, as Djoudi et al[3] correctly indicate, is grossly under explored in the sphere of climate change research. This is precisely why I’m happy to be part of an initiative like CARIAA, which pushes for a multi-disciplinary approach and value research impact above all else, and in doing so boost academia’s contribution to achieving actual progress on women’s rights.




[1] Esquivel, V. and Sweetman, C. (2016). Gender and the Sustainable Development Goals Gender and Development, 24(1): 1-8

[2] OECD-DAC Network on Gender Equality (2015) Making climate finance work for women: Overview of bilateral ODA to gender and climate change. Cited by FAO in Tackling Climate Change Through the Empowerment of Rural Women

[3] Beyond dichotomies: Gender and intersecting inequalities in climate change studies

Houria Djoudi, Bruno Locatelli, Chloe Vaast, Kiran Asher, Maria Brockhaus, Bimbika Basnett Sijapati

Ambio. 2016 Dec; 45(Suppl 3): 248–262.