Female faces of the UNFCCC

Modified version originally published on The Hoopla 

On Tuesday November 27, the United Nations Gender Day, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres sat on a panel with the Her Royal Excellency Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani, the former President of Ireland, the Chair of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation of the Republic of South Africa, Assistant Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organisation, the Director-General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Director of Sustainability at Masdar.

The surprising thing about this panel of directors, royalty and secretaries (and not the typewriter kind) is that they were all women. Every last one.

We know in Australia that women are significantly underrepresented in executive positions. The disparity is far worse in a global context, which is why it was so remarkable not just that the panel was autonomously female; but that the women held such diverse and influential positions.

Her Royal Excellency Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani opened the session. Her Excellency encapsulates some of the apparent contradictions that characterise the climate talks in Qatar. Qatar is abundant in oil and natural gas and is the highest per capita emitter in the world. Yet, it hosts this year’s United Nations Climate Conference. Her Excellency is sitting in the centre of panel to discuss gender equality and climate change; yet she is dressed in the tradition Abaya which many westerners associate with the oppression of women.   Her Excellency has an answer to these contradictions, and that is that they are not contradictions at all; they are simply part of a process of formulating both individual and national identities.

In a TedX talk earlier this year, Her Excellency explained; “We know modernisation is happening.” “We are changing our culture from within but at the same time we are reconnecting with our traditions”. Her Excellency has tasked herself with the cultural enlivening of Qatar manifesting in a burgeoning modern art industry and the Qatar Film Institute. Moreover, the twenty-something year old is determined not only to build bridges between the East and the West but to “break down the walls of ignorance” that divide them. Qatar is an oil and gas rich country that has contributed its fair share to the impending disaster that is climate change. Yet, this does not negate Qatar’s own vulnerability as one of the ten developing countries likely to be affected the most heavily by rising sea levels.

These were the “big ideas” that Christiana Figueres referred to throughout the panel discussion as the six women discussed how to empower women to be part of the decision-making and solutions to climate change.

Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland and President of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice wryly conceded to Figueres that she too “share[d] a sense of the slight frustration” of women being left out of the climate negotiation process when climate change is absolute central to the experiences of women all over the world. We know that women disproportionately suffer due to climate change – they are more likely to die in natural disasters, are forced to cope with increased workload due to their role as caregiver for the sick and food provider for the family, they have to travel further and in less secure conditions to obtain food and water in situations of scarcity and they are more likely to become victims of violence in situations of armed violence provoked by climate change related events.

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister of International Relations and Co-operation of the Republic of South Africa, talked with the dry sense of humour that emerges when compassion and determination butt heads in order to get things done. Figueres called her the “motor of everything that happened in Durban” and asked Minister Nkoana-Mashabane what she thought was holding women back.

Her answer? Men. “Just how masculine it is. The fact that 90% of chief negotiators are men, serviced by women, might explain perhaps why it is slow. And it moves when it is driven by women”. Quips aside, the Minister talks about Republic of South Africa as “a non-sexist state constitutionally”. She expands, “it is not enough to have that constitutional, we have to work to make sure the principles of that constitution are given content”.

The Republic of South Africa works using a quota system, something that conservative western countries like Australia and America find abhorrent. Australians in particular have an irrational fear of positive affirmation (possibly stemming from some deep set tall poppy syndrome). Minister Nkoana-Mashabane considers it essential to ensuring women are “part of the bigger story” and not simply the footnote.

Ms. Elena Manaenkova, Assistant Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization is most certainly not in the footnote. Manaenkova stood out for her understated humour (and impressive C.V).  She described herself as a Meteorologist first, Russian second. She talks about the practical necessity of meteorology – about mothers as meteorologists who have to dress their children for possible changing weather conditions, and about the responsibility of the profession of meteorology to provide concrete information to women all over the world about when to plant seed, where to plant seed or where to find water. She stresses the lived experiences of women in a world affected by climate change where “the past is no longer a reliable indicator of the future”.

Each of the women on the panel has contributed enormously to moving the world towards finding solutions to climate change. Female leaders are critical to shifting the paradigm that assumes men will be the decision makers at suited events with amplified voices.  But these women are few amongst millions who instead suffer a disproportionate burden because of climate change. As women will tally higher in death counts after natural disasters, as women will be subjected to more violence in climate related conflict, and as women will suffer more illness, will care for more sick and will lose more babies under five; women have a right to play a role in deciding how best to deal with the problem of climate change. It is the responsibility of men and women alike who have the privilege of a voice within the climate change negotiations, to ensure that the most disenfranchised and the most affected are heard.

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