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  • Writer's pictureVijay Krishnarayan

Amplifying civic voice: a discussion on gender and climate change

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

Vijay Krishnarayan, Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation, discusses how the Foundation took a step towards achieving its goal, of mainstreaming gender equality into its mission to advance participatory governance, through  a discussion with civil society on the intersection between gender and climate change in the Caribbean.

As the Caribbean hurricane season rolls around, memories of last year’s devastation stir throughout the region. Living with recovery is a harsh reality in Antigua and Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands and Dominica in particular. The costs of hurricanes Irma and Maria are estimated to be in the range of between 7 and 15 billion US dollars. Every Caribbean person felt the events of September 2017, because we all have memories of a storm over the past 30 years that has touched our lives. From hurricane Gilbert in 1988 onwards, living with category 4 and 5 storms has become a new normal.

What we talk about less is the way that those storms impact us differently. There is undoubtedly a strong sense of coming together and pride in people’s stoic ability to deal with devastation. This narrative of community resilience raises several questions though. While we all might be at risk, are some not at greater risk than others? While we all have to clean up afterwards, are some not called on to clean up more than others? While we all have something to gain from effective climate advocacy, might some not have more to gain than others?

These are questions that the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had not engaged with until relatively recently. When it was established in 1992 it was the only one of the conventions agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio that did not explicitly make reference to gender. The Conferences of the Parties (COP) that have convened annually since 1995 to take commitments further have attempted to retrieve this situation – albeit incrementally. The establishment of a Gender Action Plan at COP 23 in Berlin last year sent an encouraging signal but since then there’s been less agreement about how this space might be used.

‘There is undoubtedly a strong sense of coming together and pride in people’s stoic ability to deal with devastation.’

The Commonwealth Foundation’s current strategic plan places greater emphasis than before on mainstreaming gender equality in our mission to advance participatory governance. In practice this means identifying the ways that gender intersects with societal disadvantage. In global climate change discussions, small states and the Caribbean in particular can be marginalised. Gender equality considerations doubly so.

Having taken soundings from civil society organisations and others in the region we convened an exploratory Caribbean discussion on the intersection between gender and climate. This set out to understand what the region’s needs might be and determine how we might add value to civil society’s policy advocacy in this area.  In partnership with the UNDP Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme in Barbados, we invited more than 40 civil society colleagues from each Commonwealth Caribbean country to focus on the issue.

The group that convened had many strengths – not least its diversity. There were established civil society advocates like Sandra Ferguson from Grenada’s Agency for Rural Transformation and Renwick Rose from the Winward Islands Farmers Association in St Vincent and the Grenadines as well as emerging leaders like Cordelia Shal from the Toledo Maya Women’s Council in Belize. There were colleagues from the environment movement like Suzanne Stanley from the Jamaica Environment Trust and those who were not like Chelsee Merchant and Bernard Warner from the Association of Persons with Disabilities in Antigua and Barbuda. The Foundation’s own focus on creativity as a catalyst for social change saw cultural practitioners like Kendel Hippolyte and Oonya Kempadoo also participating.

The three days of discussion were expertly facilitated by Janice Cumberbatch of the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies in Barbados. It benefited from an introduction to gender by Kimberly Carr Tobias from UWI’s Institute for Gender and Development Studies in Jamaica. Dizzanne Billy of Climate Trackers in Trinidad and Tobago relayed key messages via social media throughout: ‘Gender is not just about men and women, it’s about correcting the power imbalance’; ‘Gender power dynamics determine who has what rights and what access to resources to deal with the impacts of climate change’ she tweeted.

Colleagues also made the connection between governance and effective action on climate change. Some called for transparency in the institutions vested with responsibility for addressing the issue. Others cited what they called ‘transactional governance’ (governance based on incentives and disincentives) as a barrier to broader engagement with the development challenges facing the region. The need for new language to communicate the issues of climate change and gender to a wider audience was called for – not least by the writers that were present.

The meeting closed concluding that while there were opportunities for training and workshops there were not enough spaces for civic voices to gather and consider the big issues facing the region. It was agreed that this gathering had enabled colleagues to learn from each other and so improve their understanding of the issues. While there was value in having civil society talking to each other it was also recognised that there was a need for engagement with policy makers to shape a regional agenda. The Commonwealth Foundation took this message to CARICOM colleagues in Georgetown afterwards and it was warmly received. There’s an emerging area of work for the Foundation here, which could resonate across the Commonwealth.

This article was originally posted by the Commonwealth Foundation during Vijay’s time as the Director-General.

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