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Building resilience through socially equitable climate action


Lisa Hiwasaki

Program Leader, IDRC

Lowine Hill

Program Management Officer

Gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, and physical ability influence how individuals experience climate change and adapt to its impact. Although women, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, the poor, and youth contribute the least to the phenomenon of climate change (e.g., in terms of emissions of greenhouse gases), they are often the most vulnerable to its effects.

For climate action to be effective, it must be based on research that goes beyond studying bio-physical risk factors or individual aspects of social vulnerability in isolation. Sustainable climate action should be based on research that helps us understand the interrelated climatic, environmental, social, cultural, economic, institutional, and political factors that aggravate the differentiated impacts of climate change. We also need to improve our understanding of how climate action can support social equity and enable women, men, girls, and boys to increase their resilience and become positive agents of transformation.

Gender equity and climate change adaptation

The importance of the link between gender and climate change has been recognized in global and national policies and initiatives on climate change since the mid-2000s. For example, in 2002, the Commission on the Status of Women called for action to mainstream a gender perspective into ongoing research on the impacts and causes of climate change, and to encourage the application of results of this research in policies and programmes.

IDRC has taken important steps to ensure that our climate change adaptation research is not simply gender aware or gender sensitive, but that it empowers women as agents of change (SDG 5) and as a means to achieve improved climate action (SDG 13).

We’d like to share three examples from the 85 IDRC-supported projects implemented between 2005 and 2016 in 75 countries in the Global South - accounting for more than CA$80 million - that have championed, in one way or another, women’s empowerment in the face of climate change.

Improved access to sanitation for enhanced dignity and improved resilience

woman accessing sanitation and water station
people sitting around in a circle on a carpet in a room

A project focussing on women’s rights and access to water and sanitation in Asian cities  enabled dialogue between local governments and key local stakeholders, including poor women and girls, whose voices are seldom heard by local policymakers. By employing a methodology that enabled women to analyze safety from their own perspective, the understanding of the water and sanitation needs of poor urban women and girls was vastly improved. As a result, the quality and maintenance of community toilet complexes (CTCs) was improved, which helps ensure the privacy and dignity of the women and girls using these facilities. Active community participation, community organizing, and capacity building to address gender gaps in water and sanitation services also reduced the level of harassment experienced by women and girls while using CTCs.  

As water supplies become uncertain in the face of climate change, providing access to sustainable sanitation systems in urban settings is a priority. By giving voice to the women and girls who are primarily affected by insufficient essential services such as water, sanitation, drainage, and solid waste management, the project ensured that women and girls’ resilience is at the forefront of local urban planning and governance discussions.

Access to ICTs for informed climate change adaptation solutions

woman looking and working on her cellphone
Berhane Gebru

Two phases of a project in East Africa that focussed on using information and communications technology (ICT) to provide meteorological and agricultural information to smallholder farmers have helped both men and women farmers cope with water shortages and make informed decisions on agricultural practices.

Mobile phones and radio programs were used to disseminate agricultural advisories, weather forecasts, and other crop, market, and disease/pest control related messages. This information, used to help farmers make decisions on agricultural practices, the market, and water management, was disseminated in ways that considered the different needs and preferences of women and men. For instance, by linking the content of the mobile phone messages sent to farmers with the information in the radio broadcasts, by delivering a radio program animated by women reflecting local climate realities, and by adapting the radio broadcasting timing to a period women were available, the project team ensured the information delivered was trusted and adopted by women.

As a result of the project, an almost equal number of women and men farmers gained access to crucial information that ultimately helped them increase their household income, a marked change from before the project, when only 24% of women (as opposed to 76% of men) had access to such information. It has also encouraged women to use ICTs in their farming planning.  

Understanding and reinforcing bottom-up initiatives by women in informal settlements

An ongoing project is focussing on the role of informal settings to improve disaster risk reduction strategies in Latin America and the Caribbean. It endeavours to improve understanding and facilitate bottom-up mechanisms of climate change adaptation in informal urban settings that are vulnerable to water-related risks associated with climate change.

These mechanisms are often initiated and led by women, who play a crucial role in building the social base that makes adaptation possible. The goal of the project is to create the conditions to scale up these informally-driven strategies of adaptation to climate change and variability and to integrate them into formal institutions and public policy in small/medium-sized cities. For instance, in Yumbo, Colombia, women organized a young resident group that gathers every three months to help clean open drains and canals on Sundays after church. The group removes garbage and waste and plants trees along drains and canals to protect houses while facilitating water flow and reducing the risk of floods.

The project will help to successfully scale-up this initiative at the municipal level by providing additional resources and capacities. This will be an important step towards the recognition of the importance of informal, community-based adaptation strategies to climate change in policymaking circles.

Towards social equity

Although climate change affects everyone, it has a greater impact on women, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, and the poor. These groups often lack access to and control over resources, power, and knowledge, which in turn determines the responsibilities assigned to them, the activities they undertake, and their decision-making opportunities. These elements influence the ways that such groups experience and respond to climate change, which can exacerbate social inequality.

We believe that socially equitable climate action that enhances the resilience of all people is essential. It is crucial to find ways to facilitate on-the-ground changes that enable women, ethnic minorities, indigenous people, the poor, and youth to contribute to increased climate resilience and become positive agents of transformation. Building on our work on women’s empowerment in the face of climate change, we now seek to support demand-driven, policy-relevant research that goes beyond focusing on gender to tackle the wider issue of social equity. Climate and disaster resilience, energy, and migration have been identified as important areas where practical work and local solutions are in demand.

One of the ways the Centre aims to contribute to the implementation of the Paris Agreement is through a new call for proposals. Accelerating climate action: Social equity and empowerment of women and girls aims to support research with the potential to effect significant and sustainable change, thereby leading to the empowerment of women, men, girls and boys.

Lisa Hiwasaki is the Program Leader and Lowine Hill is the Program Management Officer for the Climate Change program at IDRC.