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Creating opportunities for women to lead the low-carbon recovery


In a time of overlapping global crises, women’s contributions and leadership have never been more important. The long shadow of COVID-19 severely disrupted economies around the world, with sectors dominated by women among the hardest hit. Other crises compound hardships, such as supply shocks arising from the Ukraine war. As countries and international donors invest in recovery, they need to address not only the recent slide backwards but also long-standing obstacles to gender equality.

At the same time, efforts to address the climate crisis will dramatically reshape lives and livelihoods. There is international agreement that global temperatures must not increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius, but ideally no more than 1.5 degrees to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change. This demands a rapid transition to low-carbon policies and strategies. If this urgent transition is to include women and benefit from their leadership, these policies and strategies must deliberately aim to boost women’s economic empowerment.

The IDRC-supported initiative Gender Equality in a Low Carbon World puts women’s leadership at the heart of low-carbon transition strategies. Launched in 2021, 12 action research projects in 17 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are exploring innovations that simultaneously boost women’s economic progress and support low-carbon livelihoods. The research is exploring ways to remove gender barriers, such as the disproportionate burden of unpaid care on women, and promoting opportunities in sectors where women can flourish.

Promoting sustainable tourism as an engine for women’s empowerment

In Bolivia, a research team saw tremendous potential to enhance women’s economic leadership and climate action in the tourism industry. Before the pandemic, tourism in the country was growing by more than 10% annually — twice as fast as the country’s overall economic growth. Women represent three-quarters of those employed in this industry, which was hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) – Bolivia, research is generating evidence to ground the country’s transition from male-dominated, high-emissions extractive industries towards gender-inclusive and sustainable tourism. According to SDSN – Bolivia’s executive director, Lykke Andersen, “Tourism has a very low carbon footprint in Bolivia as most visitors arrive by bus from neighbouring countries and engage in nature-based, low-emission activities.”

As in all projects supported by the Gender Equality in a Low Carbon World initiative, this research addresses structural barriers to gender equality, such as social norms and policies that hold women back. It will look beyond the quantity of jobs women occupy in tourism and consider their quality — especially whether and how they empower women.

“We need to study Bolivian ideologies that place women as inferior to men and create inequalities at work,” writes SDSN – Bolivia research associate Agnes Medinaceli. This analysis includes a range of issues, such as the micro-violence that women in the tourism sector suffer daily, for example when they are asked to wear certain uncomfortable clothes, and women’s capacity within the household to make decisions about how to use their earnings.

To build alliances with both the private and public sectors in support of this vision, SDSN – Bolivia and the Fundación Innovación en Empresariado Social created an observatory for sustainable tourism. The Observatorio Boliviano para la Industria Túristica Sostenible is gathering data and producing evidence on gender equality and sustainability in the sector and training small- and medium-sized women-led businesses in new digital technologies.

Making food production chains more inclusive and sustainable

Research implemented by Grow Asia targets agriculture, a sector that is ripe for transformation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance women’s livelihoods and leadership. Research teams in Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are testing private- and public-sector interventions with smallholder farmers who are part of large value chains.

The research in Vietnam, for example, focuses on rice.

“We learned that women account for 50% of the rice producers in Vietnam, that rice farming significantly contributes to methane emissions worldwide and that, of all the greenhouse gases produced by Vietnam, 15% is from rice,” said Amy Melissa Chua, country director of the Philippines Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture and a member of the research team.

Women represent nearly one-third of the South Asians employed in agriculture, but they rarely own land. They primarily work as labourers and are expected to work while caring for children, the sick and the elderly. Enhancing their role while reducing emissions demands working with agribusinesses and social enterprises along the agriculture value chain to increase women’s knowledge and capacity to adopt climate-positive practices.

The project aims to demonstrate how member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can implement COVID-19 recovery plans and meet commitments to cut emissions from agriculture. Many states are in the early stages of planning and don’t yet have the private sector connections they need. The research will help create these links while sharing lessons learned about scaling up the integration of gender and climate-smart agriculture.

IDRC’s partnership with Grow Asia is expanding. In August 2022, it launched a USD1.6 million multi-donor impact fund to support activities that incentivize public and private investment in gender-inclusive agri-business practices, especially for small rural enterprises. Building on foundational investments from IDRC and Corteva Agriscience, Grow Asia aims to raise and channel USD5.6 million into women’s economic empowerment programs over the next three years.

A group of women farmers stand in a field in Senegal.
Jelle Goossens/Rikolto (Vredeseilanden)

Empowering women horticulturalists through solar-powered irrigation

Households and businesses across Africa have long suffered from a shortage of dependable energy. Many countries are now looking to solar and other renewable sources to power a clean pathway to growth. In Senegal and Guinea, women dominate the fast-growing horticulture sector, contributing across the value chain as producers, processers and marketers. Yet growth in the sector, and women’s economic progress, is constrained by the time and cost of irrigation, which puts a huge burden on women, especially on small farms with manual watering systems.

Led by Initiative prospective agricole et rurale, a research consortium is exploring ways to reduce women’s burdens and increase their yields and incomes by increasing their access to, and control over, solar-powered irrigation systems. The consortium works in close collaboration with market gardening groups, Senegal’s national association for renewable energy and ministries responsible for women’s affairs and agriculture. Together they will generate evidence to inform a regulatory framework and public policies to support the wide-scale adoption of these systems.

Investing in clean energy

As part of its efforts to identify synergies between women’s economic empowerment and low-carbon transitions, IDRC will broaden its investment in research on small-scale clean energy. Over the next several years, it will support research to identify and test solutions for countries to achieve their clean energy goals in ways that promote the leadership and economic empowerment of women and young people. The research will identify policy options and build capacity to help countries optimize their mix of low-carbon energy sources — such as solar, biomass, hydro and wind — in ways that promote a just and inclusive transition.

Learn more

Policy brief: Women’s economic empowerment – the missing piece in low-carbon plans and actions

Research highlights

  • Twelve action research projects are exploring innovations that simultaneously boost women’s economic progress and support low-carbon livelihoods.
  • The research will identify how to remove gender barriers to promote women’s leadership in sectors such as:
    • Nature-based tourism in Bolivia
    • Smallholder farming for large value chains in Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines
    • Horticulture using solar-powered irrigation in Senegal and Guinea