Putting gender, intersectionality and social justice at the centre of transformative responses to climate change

Twenty-six years after the landmark UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, gender equality has not been achieved anywhere. Tracy Kajumba and Clare Shakya reflect that if we want to transform society, we need a radical new approach, starting with the way we respond to climate change.

Tracy Kajumba is principal researcher and Clare Shakya is director of IIED's Climate Change research group

Woman filling a jerry can with water

Understanding and applying a gender perspective and intersectionality approaches to research design is essential in climate risk assessment (Photo: Albert González Farran/UNAMID via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

At IIED, our strategy commits us to address inequality and promote the rights and voice of poor men and women, young and old. Social justice is at the centre of our climate change research.

But over the past year – a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has made global inequality much worse – we have asked ourselves whether the way that we work and what we do will support transformation quickly enough.

We need to proceed with renewed urgency, taking steps through our research to dismantle systems that hold some people back and privilege others when confronting the challenge of climate change.

Five steps towards social justice

1. Gender and intersectionality analysis must be central to designing our intervention

Too often gender and intersectionality is forgotten in research design and only introduced when it is too late to address it systematically. Researchers should consider gender and intersectionality analysis tools in every design – and only discard them if they are clearly not needed.

Using such tools requires time and skills to facilitate the process, mindful of social norms, values and behaviours. Conducting separate interviews with different groups takes time and money – we must factor these in.

2. Getting better at intersectionality means understanding power dynamics

The focus on gender equality often characterises women as 'the vulnerable', negating the reality that inequities are a result of unequal power dynamics between men and women, and that women are solution holders too.

Transforming power relations requires addressing the barriers that affect different categories of people across the intersectionality spectrum. Focusing on one group narrows the view of inequalities, excludes other categories, but also fails to challenge the privileged positions and structures that perpetuate inequality.

IIED is on the journey of addressing intersectionality in our work, including research, learning, climate policy support and monitoring, evaluation and learning. Beyond gender, social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege, including ethnicity, caste, sex, race, class, religion and disability.

Integrating these factors requires tools that consider gender and intersectional differences in climate risk assessment, for example; to capture the range of perspectives, and factors of advantage and disadvantage that may be both empowering and oppressing.

Understanding power relations is critical. For instance, viewing ‘the household’ as a collection of individuals who behave as if they agree on how best to combine their time, goods and resources, can constrain women’s capacity to cope with climate change impacts, and can enhance distributional inequalities among household members.

All research requires methods and approaches that acknowledge power relations and use this understanding to support transformative changes.

3. Tracking our impact

IIED’s emphasis on effective monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) reflects commitment to continuous learning from our work, each other, our partners and beyond to achieve change. MEL ensures that research outcomes measure gender equality and inclusion.

We have reviewed the theories of change for our climate change work programmes to address gender equality and inclusion. But we need to get better at tracking gender and intersectionality issues across our work, using tools such as IIED’s institutional learning and impact framework.

4. Gendered and intersectional communication of evidence

We must also improve on how we reflect gender and inclusion outcomes, as well as challenges, in our research communications. Our focus has been on women, although some work also considers ethnicity, young people and Indigenous people.

Intersectionality must be included from the start if communication is to be intersectional. Pathways to impact reports should address inequality. Evidence coming out of our commitment to a more robust gender and intersectional analysis will support our drive to address power relations and dynamics within governance and decision-making processes.

5. Enabling ourselves to be better at tackling gender and intersectionality in climate action for social justice

Getting the incentives right for our staff and partners to engage in tackling gender and intersectionality creates our enabling environment. We need to strengthen our skills and capabilities in IIED as well as those of our partners.

Underlying this are the social and cultural norms that we too often overlook. Understanding these norms with our partners is an essential first step towards tackling the power structures for transformational change.

Looking outwards for change

We have recognised what we must do within IIED but what does this mean for our ambition in the wider world? Using the Spirit in Action approach to changing the way we do change to define transformative processes, we commit to the following:

  • Re-imagine systems and ways of working: we will redefine our engagements and the way we support the political and technical capabilities of those we work with at global and national level to make sure that all research, learning, and policy processes are inclusive and just.
  • Reform current systems: we will tackle systemic issues, finding solutions that work for us and our partners. We shall support this through mentoring, institutional inductions, tailored training, periodic assessment of research products and outcomes, and holding each other to account.
  • Challenge power structures: we will analyse and challenge power and legitimacy and asses how institutions might perpetuate inequity. We will discuss difficult intersectional topics, shifting individual and collective consciousness and knowledge, leading to accountability and ownership of the transformational process.
  • Recreate new systems that dismantle unjust systems: we will work with partners to identify champions to be agents and owners of change. We commit to co-design and co-produce gender transformative research with partners who complement our skills and can amplify voices for change.

Climate change is a justice issue that requires us to dismantle systems that oppress, exclude, disadvantage and prevent people from accessing resources and opportunities for adaptation, while privileging others who have power and decision-making control.

Our work requires us to engage thoughtfully with these people excluded from power, to support them in challenging these systems and reimagining our future.

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