COP27 in Egypt was overwhelmingly dominated by male leaders. Yet African women are key agents in the fight against climate change.
This year’s Conference of the Parties on climate change has been dubbed the ‘African COP’, finally including prominent voices from African civil society in the global debate. My continent is considered the most climate-vulnerable in the world. Yet the UN conference in Sharm el-Sheikh had a blind spot that would seriously undermine any COP27 outcome: the shocking absence of women at the heart of decision-making.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The inaugural COP27 family portrait captured all 104 leaders in attendance. Eight were women.
It was the first COP to be held in Africa since Marrakech in 2016 (the year the Paris Agreement entered into force). Since then, various events have irreversibly shaken the fabric of our societies. The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have all raised pressing questions about representation and equality in times of global crisis – issues that world leaders can no longer ignore without face political repercussions.
In the aftermath of these tumultuous events, many people across Africa were thrilled to see the return of the COP to the continent: finally, our voices would be heard by these world leaders. Unfortunately, that was far from the truth. African women continue to be excluded from decision-making.
COP27 had one of the lowest representation of women at any recent UN climate summit: only around 34% of negotiating staff were women, while some teams had over 90% men. Considering that women disproportionately bear the burden of climate change, this should be a wake-up call.
Several governments have rightly expressed concern that the absence of women’s voices negatively affects the outcome of the negotiations. While COP27 included a day devoted to the gendered impacts of the climate crisis, it was a poor attempt to address the huge and rapidly widening gender gap in climate action.
Nine of the ten most climate-vulnerable countries in the entire world are found in sub-Saharan Africa. Across the African continent, women make up half a billion of the impoverished rural population and rarely have access to solutions that can lift them and their communities out of poverty.
Despite this, women play a colossal role in food production, agricultural innovation and the preservation of biodiversity in Africa. As custodians of traditional knowledge systems, African women are increasingly at the forefront of the climate battle.
The role of women in building climate resilience is particularly crucial in sub-Saharan Africa. The region is suffering one of the worst food crises in modern history, with an estimated 146 million people in need of urgent humanitarian aid and women producing up to 80% of food.
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Studies have repeatedly shown that women’s leadership qualities drive success: women are seen as more compassionate, innovative and honest. And the economic imperative for women’s inclusion is astronomical: according to the World Bank, gender inequality costs $160 trillion in lost human capital, twice the world’s gross domestic product.
lead the fight
In Africa, women are already leading the climate fight on the ground. But their voices need to be amplified by both international actors and African political and religious elites for this to truly succeed. Traditionally, women remain excluded from decision-making in many cultural contexts in Africa, with governments failing to recognize their role in climate disaster response strategies.
And it has to start at the community level. COP27 finally recognized the role of faith-based initiatives in building climate resilience. But none of these initiatives seem to recognize the gender dimension of the climate crisis.
Africa is also the most religious continent on earth. The mobilization of religious actors and community leaders has enormous untapped potential to usher in change at all levels of society. The usual top-down approaches tend to blindly marginalize the realities of life for very many Africans.
But imagine how effective these initiatives could be if they tackled gender barriers supported by outdated cultural and religious beliefs and misconceptions. A grassroots effort to address the urgent link between gender and faith in climate action is taking place today in The Gambia, in the form of a Faith and Climate Forum.
What makes this initiative unique is that it is supported by the largest Islamic non-governmental organization in the world, the Muslim World League. Its secretary general, Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, argues that religious leaders have a religious duty to empower women to play crucial roles in civil society if climate change is to be reversed.
Critical cultural dimensions
It is imperative that other climate change initiatives take note of and endorse strategies that not only recognize the role of women in climate action, but actively empower them by addressing the barriers that have hindered their participation. These critical cultural dimensions of climate action and the policies that flow from it need to be increasingly recognized by civil society actors and religious leaders.
A recently launched initiative by the Climate Heritage Network sees culture as an invaluable asset for empowering transformative change in communities. Across the African continent, as in many other parts of the world, rural and indigenous women are the holders of unique knowledge about the natural resources their communities possess – from conservation to heritage – but rarely have a say in the policies affecting the climate resilience of their communities.
In places like Africa, where the costs of climate change are so high, we simply cannot afford to retain women. Without urgent inclusion of half of humanity, future COPs will blindly continue the legacy of silencing women’s voices, jeopardizing climate resilience in Africa and beyond, which will ultimately cost our planet dearly. .
Camilla Barungi is Managing Director of the Tooro Omutoma Project, a cultural industry accelerator in Uganda, and Editor-in-Chief of Jaro4ME, a multimedia platform focused on the African diaspora. She has been a regular speaker on sustainability at UN summits, including the NGO Conference and the ECOSOC Forum on Financing for Development.
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