Missing voices: let's hear women's experience of climate change

There was plenty of discussion at the global climate talks about how working directly with women in the global South is essential. But when it came to listening, those very voices were marginalised

Anne Schulthess's picture
Insight by 
Anne Schulthess
Anne Schulthess is marketing manager in IIED's Communications Group
06 December 2017
UN climate change conference (COP23)
A series of pages related to IIED's activities at the 2017 UNFCCC climate change summit in Bonn
A last-minute speaker change resulted in IIED participating in an all-male panel (or 'manel') at the UN climate summit (Photo: Anne Schulthess)

A last-minute speaker change resulted in IIED participating in an all-male panel (or 'manel') at the UN climate summit (Photo: Copyright Anne Schulthess)

Attending the UN climate talks feels like a big deal. Despite having been in the climate change movement for some years, Bonn was my first climate summit and it felt big to me. It felt important to be there in an IIED communications capacity, but also as a woman and an activist.

I attended the 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with the aim of collecting and reporting on the voices of women working at the forefront of climate change at all levels – women leading, and inspiring, small-time activists like me.

I did see women influencing and leading, and some fantastic women speaking. But I'm not sure I saw women being listened to – particularly women from the global South.

IIED was a partner organiser for the Development and Climate Days (D&C Days) event. I arrived in time for the closing panel chaired by former Ireland president Mary Robinson and comprising two men and six women – four of which were from the global South. It was brilliant and insightful, and featured the kind of representation I hoped to see at the rest of COP23.

Sadly, however, this was not the case. I came back from Bonn with a few short reports from women across the spectrum of grassroots, governments and research who are doing great work in their own areas. But these stories of progress were overshadowed by my frustration at a prevalence of tokenism and all-male panels, and disillusionment about the way the system appears to work with women from the developing world. 

Ignored and unimportant

This is not to conflate all-male panels at events with the unequal burden upon women in the global South, but the two are linked. And – full disclosure – it became apparent to me and fellow colleagues that even those of us who are 'with it', working in partnership with women and communities in the global South, need to do a lot better.

From having to scramble at the last minute to add more women to our own side event panel, to (rightly) being called out for one of our researchers speaking on another all-male panel – it is clear to me that the voices of the women who are most affected by climate change are not being listened to at these events. Not just not listened to – ignored. Not acknowledged. Deemed unimportant.

I primarily attended side events to do with climate finance – an emerging area with huge potential to deliver much needed adaptation funding to the communities most affected by climate change. These finance mechanisms are mostly administered in the global North by bankers and funds with plenty to say about private finance, attracting investment and so on, but seemingly not a lot of time to show the genuine impacts of the funds on the ground through sharing the discussion with, say, women slum-dwellers trying to get land tenure.

Sheela Patel, chair of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), was on the D&C Days closing panel and spoke energetically about how she mobilises slum-dwelling women to demand their land rights. She was somebody I wanted to speak with about her myriad experiences on working with people on the margins of society – those urban-dwellers most impacted by climate change.

She was also on a high-level roundtable discussion on investment into climate resilience in Bonn, with lots of investment bank representatives, fund managers and private companies. She sat on the panel. Just sat there. Waited.

She waited while they rearranged the speaking order so that the investment funds could speak first because they had to leave the event early. Waited while the private asset managers (who also had to leave early) spoke about what a great job their financial mechanisms were doing reaching the world's poorest. Waited while ministers talked about how working directly with women in the global South is essential.

And then, when they got to the end of the long list of speakers and it was Sheela's turn, they ran out of time and closed the meeting without acknowledging her. 

Missing: the voices of women

This was a case of tokenism of the worst kind – bodies from the global North congratulating themselves for doing a great job while having a handful of women on the panel; few of whom were from the global South, one of whom didn't get to speak.

One of the speakers said that it's "a sign of the times that we have big investors around the table for a discussion on climate resilience". Maybe that is a sign of the times, and even a good thing, but what is crucially missing are the voices of women like Sheela. What was lost from this discussion was the lived experience of a woman who can show in plain words the effects of climate change – as well as the adaptation benefits of the climate funds. 

Sheela Patel tells IIED about what it feels like to be 'one of the token community people' at the international climate talks

It strikes me that the examples of all-male panels and tokenism at events such as COP are just reflections of the system – patriarchy or global inequality or whatever you want to call it.

The adoption of the Gender Action Plan (PDF) at COP23 may have been a significant step forward in amplifying marginalised voices and recognising the disproportionate impact of climate change on women, but women the world over are still fighting for equal footing with men, and women from the poorest communities in the global South have several extra layers of inequality to navigate before they're welcome at the top table.

IIED senior fellow Saleemul Huq argued that this is the first 'inside-out' COP – that every "individual citizen of the world, now has the ability to implement what was agreed [in Paris]". I would argue that COP will not be truly inside out until women like Sheela are no longer at the bottom of the list waiting for their turn to speak, but involved throughout with their voices recognised to be as valuable as those of the asset managers. 

Anne Schulthess ([email protected]) is marketing manager in IIED's Communications Group.