UN Commission on Women adopts unprecedented global agreement on gender equality and climate change

For the first time in the history of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), Member States have adopted an intergovernmental agreement, Agreed Conclusions, on the theme of ‘Achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes’. 

This unprecedented global agreement sets out action Member States must take in order to advance gender equality within the context of climate change. The agreement comes on the coattails of the report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which highlights the urgency of action needed to meet the Paris target to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It also recognizes how those who have contributed least to the climate emergency will be most affected by its consequences. 

Gendered impacts of the climate crisis

The climate crisis is a gendered crisis. It is a social justice crisis. Women, girls and other groups marginalized by systemic oppression who bear least responsibility for the climate crisis are hit hardest. Addressing the crisis must therefore be rooted in a gender-responsive and human rights based approach, ensuring that regions and communities most impacted are supported in terms of resilience and adaptation, as well as financing for loss and damage. 

The impacts of the climate crisis on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are many. They include reduced or unavailable services in areas affected by disasters, harmful impacts on maternal health due to heat exposure and lack of access to clean water affecting the ability to have safe pregnancies, deliveries and newborn care and increased incidence of sexual and gender‑based violence and harmful practices in situations of humanitarian crises or displacement. 

For example, when a drought hits, women and girls who already bear the brunt of unpaid care work, may face increased demand for unpaid domestic and care work, including traveling further distances to collect water for their household. Traveling to collect water may be burdensome physically (especially for pregnant, lactating and post-partum women), cause disruptions to girls’ education and may also be dangerous in terms of heightened vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence while travelling. 

Clinics may also be affected by droughts, causing disruption to lifesaving sexual and reproductive health services for women, girls and marginalized groups, such as indigenous and rural women and girls who are disproportionately impacted by climate changes and impacts. As the impacts of the climate crisis become more severe, adverse outcomes for SRHR will only increase. 

Building resilience

The flipside of the coin is that SRHR can be transformative for overcoming marginalization and strengthening individuals’ and communities’ resilience and capacity to adapt to the climate crisis. When women and girls can exercise bodily autonomy, including access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, information and when we can realize our rights, we can better adapt to changing conditions and take informed decisions about our lives, be that health, education or employment decisions. SRHR should be an important consideration in measures aimed at enhancing resilience to both the slow onset impacts of the climate crisis and its more immediate effects: women, girls and those communities most impacted and marginalized must be meaningfully included in climate decisions affecting their lives.

Why does the adoption of the Agreed Conclusions matter and what does it achieve?

At the global level, the agreement establishes norms for how Member States should respond to the climate crisis in a gender-responsive way. At the national level, the agreement can be used by advocates to encourage implementation and accountability of commitments made by Member States. 

It is particularly promising that the Agreed Conclusions recognizes SRHR as being critical to ensuring women’s resilience and adaptation to climate and humanitarian crises. In this regard, there was an explicit recognition that as a result of displacement, women and girls face specific challenges and reduced access to essential health-care services. 

Sexual and gender-based violence (albeit no reference to Intimate Partner Violence), multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and the major contributions of civil society organizations, especially women’s, young women’s, girls’, youth-led, grassroots and community-based organizations, rural, indigenous and feminist groups, women human rights defenders, women journalists and media professionals and trade unions were recognised. 

The adverse impacts of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on menstrual hygiene and management, as well as the need to expand women’s and girls’ access to adequate, safe and clean water and sanitation facilities were also recognized together with a commitment to promote a gender-responsive approach in this regard in the context of climate change. 

The disproportionate impacts of climate change for women and girls living in humanitarian contexts were recognized together with a commitment to strengthen their full, equal and meaningful participation. Despite sustained advocacy by Countdown and IPPF to prioritize the inclusion of the Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) as a key priority for implementation at onset of crisis, this reference was not included in the final text. 

Sexual and reproductive rights enable resilience and adaptation to global challenges 

Looking towards the upcoming UN Commission on Population and Development (CPD), it is critical that we build on the momentum of CSW and ensure gains to support the realization of rights for all women and girls. 

This year’s CPD will discuss the theme of ‘Population and sustainable development, in particular sustained and inclusive economic growth’. Countdown, together with IPPF, will advocate for strong language recognizing and redistributing the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work that women and girls shoulder, as well as access to decent work. The Commission will consider the three pillars of sustainable development, which are intrinsically interlinked. Overshadowing any potential progress on sustainable development, however, is a rapidly worsening and grave global climate crisis. Responding to this crisis requires, in part, building resilience and adapting to changing conditions; we must prioritize universal access to SRHR as an essential part of this response. But above all else, we must continue to place women, girls and impacted and marginalized communities at the heart of decision-making and action – it is after all our lives and futures that are at stake. 

Words by: Preethi Sundaram, DFPA