The voices of women must not be ignored at COP26

Photo by Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash

By Louise Palmer 

From the 31st of October to the 12th of November 2021, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, also known as COP26, will be held in Glasgow. The general mood as this event approaches is one of uncertainty and urgency. There is a growing awareness amongst populations worldwide, that the climate crisis can no longer be dismissed or ignored. This year alone, global news channels have broadcast images as California was overwhelmed by wildfires and as floods devastated Germany and China. However, the continual impact of the climate crisis on countries in the Global South has been a less prominent feature of reporting. There was no widespread uproar in September as Madasgar began to experience one of the first climate change-induced famines after suffering four years of drought. This was despite the fact that the WEF reports that Madasgar has only contributed “0.01% of all the carbon dioxide generated from 1933-2019.” 

Even less prominent, in both news coverage and leader’s agendas, is the disproportionate impact of climate change on women and indigenous communities. In order to effectively tackle climate change and its effects, this cannot be ignored any longer. If leaders at COP26 want to truly make progress on this issue, they must make space for and listen to the voices of women and indigenous communities. The importance of doing so is illustrated by the words of the former president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine, “the ocean is in our backyard, and literally on our front lawn. There is no higher place that is safe to retreat to,”

The disparate effects of climate change on women across the globe. 

In many places, women suffer disproportionately due to the shortages of fuel, water and food which climate change exacerbates or, increasingly, directly causes. An apt example of the latter is the famine in Madagascar. Women tend to be more vulnerable to the environmental effects of climate change but they also suffer from further damaging societal and economic effects. Joshua Eastin argues that “gender disparities in climate change vulnerability not only reflect preexisting gender inequalities, they also reinforce them.” He highlights that shortages make it harder for women to gain or maintain economic independence and simultaneously increase the barriers to participation in wider society. 

Women also tend to be less likely to have land rights and consequently have an increased likelihood of being displaced due to severe climate change events. In turn, this can lead to a loss of education, employment and support networks. Another insidious impact of climate change is the link between severe climate events and gender-based violence (GBV). Many studies have previously demonstrated that GBV increases in humanitarian crises. Recent work has confirmed that this pattern continues in crises’ caused by climate change. Nahid Rezwana and Rachel Pain argue in their study on cyclone-related disasters in Bangladesh, that as the likelihood of GBV increased, the vulnerability of women and children to the negative effects of the cyclones also increased. These findings are also supported by studies of GBV faced by American women in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina


This autumn, it is vital that an inclusive range of women’s voices are heard and taken seriously. The UK must make sure it fulfils it’s promises to run a vaccination programme and fund quarantine costs for attendees in order to remove the barriers to participation. However, even with these programmes, there are worries many marginalised communities will not have adequate representation. Osprey Orielle Lake, founder and executive director of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) argues that “The exclusion of communities most impacted by the climate crisis will not lead to solutions that center climate justice.”Similar calls for representation have also made been by other organisations such as CARE international.  

In the UK, Westminster faced heavy criticism for the all-male selection of its leadership team for COP26 and subsequently back-tracked. The expansion of the UK team is a positive step but it still highlights that the majority of leaders do not understand the need for inclusive representation in tackling climate change. Women do not only face the devastating impacts of climate change but are capable of innovation and creative leadership which will truly lead to progress. In order to move forward in tackling climate change and the impacts of climate disasters, an approach that values the input of women and indigenous communities must be adopted for the full two weeks of COP26, not only for the single day devoted to “gender issues”. 

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