Reporter Dizzanne Billy of Caribbean Insight interviewed Dessima Williams from the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI) at the United Nations-backed climate talks in Madrid about the inextricable link between climate justice and gender equality.
Uneven distribution of resources
It is a 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 matter of debate. For the developing world, however, it is a harsh and undeniable daily reality. For instance, according to the Climate Studies Group of the University of the West Indies (Mona Campus), rainfall patterns are changing in the Caribbean, which has translated into more storms in the northern Caribbean and more droughts in the southern Caribbean.
The history of the Caribbean region has contributed to various forms of inequality. The unsweetened truth is that in the Caribbean, institutions reinforce and reflect pre-existing inequality, despite commitments made to equality and human rights.
Those who have the least responsibility must not be made to suffer compared to those who have the responsibility for creating the issue of climate change. There needs to be a balance between resources and representation, said Williams.
"Women have historically had an unfair shake in the world and therefore the need to balance out the scales is there and this need has to be recognized by those who have the power to address it," she explained.
Gender roles prevent women from being climate-resilient
Most Caribbean societies have large percentages of women-headed households. According to Williams, “In the case of Grenada and Jamaica, over 50% of the households are led by single women. Most of these households have economic challenges. They’re poorer than other groups in societies and are therefore at a higher risk in terms of the quality of their houses and the quality of their preparedness for when climate disasters strike.”
She added that these women in society are vulnerable because they tend to not have the training, finances, and overall capacity to cope, far less to withstand climate crises. These are the people who need to be helped. These are the people who negotiators at the 25th Conference of Parties (COP25) to the United Nations climate change negotiations need to consider when delaying and fighting on the wrong side of the climate emergency.
In addition to the instant impacts like hurricanes and flooding, Williams said that we need to consider slow-onset climate change impacts, such as drought, the increased presence of vector-borne diseases, food insecurity, and increased food prices. These households usually comprise small children and the woman may have to provide for her children as well as aging parents.
“When there is a crisis, these women don’t have the economic buffer, the resources needed to protect themselves and their family. Women in the Caribbean, on average and toward the lower end of the economic spectrum, are at a greater risk of not surviving the climate emergency, because of the traditional gender roles they are burdened with.”
Women make up the majority in the hospitality sector in the Caribbean and when hurricanes hit and hotels are destroyed, many women end up jobless, Williams added. The fact that women are economically expedient in the Caribbean is not always visible, but it is the reality. Because of this, she continued, we need to focus efforts on scaling up our understanding of gender inequality and how that is linked to climate justice, In responding to climate, whether it is around water, food, transportation, migration, it is important to remember these women.
Providing for women’s needs
Women have special needs even when it comes to going to a shelter. These women who are singly leading the family, have to see about their children in shelters that are not well equipped to deal with their needs. Many shelters in the Caribbean are just one open space with no space for changing babies, no space for menstruating women, and no separation for families. We need to be more sensitive and bring more women to the decision-making table at every level, said Williams.
“I don’t hear anything being spoken about the extra stress that is placed on women when there is no running water for weeks at a time,” Williams lamented. "Where are the public funds to facilitate the special needs of women when disaster strikes?"
Caribbean leadership must act on gender-sensitive climate policies
In the Caribbean, we do need climate adaptation projects, but what about the gender element? Is this being included in an effective way?
Williams said there is a gap between climate policies and gender mainstreaming in the Caribbean. Leaders need to acknowledge this gap and put measures in place to close it. This could include, for instance, capacity building on the intersectionality of gender and climate change for leaders of civil society organizations.
Gender mainstreaming is needed in Caribbean climate change policies and women need to be given the decision making power.
Williams drew attention to CANARI, which is a leading regional environmental institution. They are a great example of an organisation in the Caribbean currently working on climate change projects across the region, including gender. They believe in the culture of gender responsiveness and sensitivity. On the ground, they are partnering with women in communities, forming a model for implementing gender-sensitive projects to build climate resilience.
Acknowledge the challenges and address them
Knowledge and commitment; these are some of the key hurdles Williams identified the Caribbean faces when it comes to gender mainstreaming in climate policies. Training needs to be done for those who are vulnerable as well as those who are carrying out climate projects.
Trying to fix climate change issues without including the gender element is not a holistic approach to the problem, Williams said. Helping women is helping the families, the communities, the schools, and the entire world.