Double Mainstreaming Gender Equality and Climate Change in Post-2015 Sustainable Development Approaches

The Heinrich Böll Foundation North America Office organized a civil society side event during the 58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York on March 17, 2014. The panel discussion focused on ways in which to integrate gender equality, specifically examining care economy considerations and climate change as cross-cutting issues into post-2015 sustainable development approaches.

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Photo: Bridget Burns/WEDO

The CSW58 took stock of successes and challenges in implementing a set of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and looked ahead post-2015, including activities in the follow-up to the Rio+20 Summit in June 2012 to converge on a set of new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as possible successors to the MDGs.

In introducing the topic of the side event to the international audience in New York, Liane Schalatek from the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America recounted how the MDGs, which 189 countries endorsed in September 2000, are not a normative vision of “the future we want” – namely one devoid of exploitation of people and nature, injustice and inequality – but instead a pragmatic and practical action plan to address the worst excesses of the “world we have”.  Although there were two specific MDGs on gender equality (MDG3) and environmental sustainability (MDG7), these were largely separated and gender equality was not understood as a cross-cutting issue for all MDGs.  With this setup, the MDGs conceptually fail to integrate a key message from the 1992 Earth Summit, namely that sustainable development, which is centered around the notion of intergenerational and societal justice, of care and precaution in dealing with each other and the environment, is inconceivable without the integration of gender equality considerations into all aspects of development work and without giving women a key role in environmental and development policy decision-making.  Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration, particularly Rio Principles 10 and 20 affirmed this. 

Additionally, the significant challenge of climate change, which has already severe impacts in the poorest countries and for the most impoverished and politically disenfranchised population groups, including women, was underplayed in the MDGs, where just one of 60 overall indicators and none of the 21 targets addressed it.  This despite the fact that climate change impacts in many developing countries have already eroded a significant portion of development gains since the 2000 Millennium Summit.  This is bound to continue if the challenge of global climate change is not centrally addressed and integrated throughout a set of SDGs. 

Those also need to focus on integrating women’s rights and gender equality as a cross-cutting goal.  The “green economy” concept that Rio+20 in 2012 introduced, however, is not likely to accomplish this “double mainstreaming.”  The concept does not break with the business-as-usual market-based economic model of a growth-profit-efficiency trilogy and neglects to confront social exploitation and gender discrimination, while treating women either as suppliers of labor or passive victims and welfare recipients, and not as rights holders and change agents for sustainable development.  

Anna Fälth from UN Women, who directs the agency’s Knowledge Gateway for Women’s Economic Empowerment ( focused her remarks on the relationship between the care economy and the green economy.  Stressing that the work on the unpaid care economy needs to focus on getting political action and support to “recognize, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work,” she gave the example of improvement in traditional cookstoves as contribution to both gender equality and a greener economy.  With worldwide more than 2.8 billion people still relying on biomass for cooking – the majority of which are women as part of their care duties for their families – this unsustainable practice has massive impacts on the health of women and children because of indoor pollution and the environment (through the release of black carbon, a climate enforcer and through deforestation, including through the collection of fire wood in some of the most ecologically stressed regions of the world).  Reducing poor women’s care burden and its drudgery in many developing countries for fire-wood collection through improved cookstoves, for example, contributes to their empowerment and well-being, but also to improving the environment while addressing climate change. 

Care burdens need to be redistributed, not just allocated to women, but shared with men in households and societies for example through the provision of public services and infrastructure by local governments, which will free up women’s scarce time and capabilities.  Anna Fälth pointed out the opportunities for women to participate in the green economy which will need 2.5 million engineers and technicians for the water and sanitation sector in sub-Saharan Africa and encouraged women to become part of this work-force by strengthening also the support for women and girls in science and technology education and professions. Lastly, on the issue of recognition of the dimensions and importance of the unpaid care work that women routinely do without much acknowledgement or compensation, she highlighted the opportunity of modern technology for example to collect time-use data via cell phones as a pro-active way to not wait for governments to catch up with important data collection in support of gender equality measures. 

The MDG targets and indicators were selected on the basis of available data disaggregated by sex rather than on the basis of actual significance to development progress. She therefore urged to avoid a repeat in the context of the SDGs.  While gender equality and women’s empowerment is one of 19 issue areas identified by the Open Working Group (OWG) process for the SDGs, it needs to be ensured that in addition to such a stand-alone goal gender considerations are mainstreamed with targets and indicators across all suggested SDG issue areas.

The need for structural economic changes to address the increasing levels of poverty and inequality worldwide, create decent jobs, ensure social protection and promote the realization of women’s rights, gender equality and sustainable development was stressed by Savi Bisnath from the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) at Rutgers University. She highlighted the necessity to dismantle the silos inherent in ongoing discussions of the various economic, social and environmental components of sustainable development as if they interrelated. In order to achieve this, substantive human rights (their implementation not just their legalistic enshrinement) have to inform economic decision-making. 

She focused on the current neo-liberal economic system, its governance structure, including the state, and policies, including privatization and reduced government spending, which promote and reinforce uneven economic growth and the prosperity of a few, while increasing inequalities and fueling human rights violations, particularly for women. Pointing to the experience of the economic and financial crisis in 2008/2009, she described the financial bail-out of many commercial banks considered “too big to fail” or “too big to ignore” as a logical extension of the structural adjustment processes of the 1980s and 1990s, serving to reduce the role of the nation state to one largely focused on providing the “enabling environment” for policies and regulations that favor the few who are economically wealthy and politically powerful around the world. She noted that austerity measures reduce social service provisions in both developed and developing countries and increase the need for provision of unpaid care work, primarily by the responsibility of women and highlighted that a feminist economic analysis that takes into account intersectionalities with race, class, sexuality, age, etc and understandings of when and where women workers enter and leave the labour market will help to ensure that the changes that we are pushing for will not serve to reinforce discrimination and inequality.

Such an analysis is necessary to unmask ongoing economic stereotyping of “male breadwinner” biases in an era where living wages are becoming more rare, and where older women are disadvantaged under existing pension and retirement schemes and poor women stay poor because of care responsibilities – see the prevalence of poverty among single mothers, including in many high-income countries.  Putting a human rights approach to development at the center of post-2015 approaches does therefore mean a redistribution of power and wealth as well as increasing the accountability of public institutions. For states to have both the fiscal and policy space to do this, issues such as corporate tax evasion, land grabbing, as well as militarization and military spending have to be tackled, including for their contribution to environmental degradation.

In conclusion she noted that structural change also requires strategic alliances and collective actions across issues to create an enabling environment for the realization of women’ rights, gender equality and sustainable development, and to rebalance power for justice. We also need accountability mechanisms for state and non-state actors, including implementation of the Maastricht Principles to hold the private sector to account.

Linking gender-equitable sustainable development to freedom and creating the structural and political space for states and individuals to claim it, Noelene Nabulivou from DAWN and Diverse Voices and Action for Equality, in quoting Amartya Sen demanded a “removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or over-activity of repressive states.” 

She described gender equality as necessity for transformative development and as the red thread tying together ongoing parallel global governance processes from Beijing +20 to the post-2015 framework for multilateral climate action, but rejecting an approach that would “instrumentalize” women by positioning their importance as a factor of production for a profit-oriented endeavor, rather than from a rights and justice centred framework.

She proposed that advocacy for gender equality and feminist and heterodox analysis must therefore focus on a feminist political economy approach in which the role of transnational corporations and their influence on multilateralism are discussed front on center and supporting coherence across international agreement and justice across the macroeconomic, finance and tax systems.  Such analysis can help in developing alternative indicators which focus on the contribution to a community’s well-being, not monetary value and take account of women’s ongoing, but under-appreciated contributions for example to address climate change, such as through maintaining seed-banks or climate-resilient local food systems, as against short-term and/or marketised initiatives.  The push is to see these heterodox knowledge systems and expertise reflected in official texts.  Looking at the global climate regime specifically, Noelene described the expansion of its focus from mitigation (narrowly understood emissions reduction focus only), to adaptation (building the resilience of communities and ecosystems), and to latest successes in acknowledging the necessity for a compensation mechanism for loss & damage for the worst affected developing countries, including the small island developing states of the Pacific, in which Noelene works herself.  She deplored the general lack of financial support for many of these initiatives necessary to achieve “climate justice” (meaning redressing the fact that the countries and population groups worst affected by climate change have contributed the least to global greenhouse gas emissions and have not profited from the economic development purporting it), but for women’s and gender groups working on climate change and sustainable development, often together with social grassroots movement, specifically, demanding: “Show me the money!”  Development of appropriate technologies (not necessarily to be equated with the most costly or advanced) and their transfer, capacity building and inclusive and equitable global economic and trade patterns and systems are likewise necessary to realize gender-equitable sustainable development focused on universal human rights, social justice and accountability for public and private sector actors. 


Eleanor Blomstrom from the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) in her intervention observed that in the past 20 years we have come full circle from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to Rio+20 without having overcome a siloed approach to addressing sustainable development.  Within the MDGs, MDG 7 on environmental sustainability and MDG 8 on global partnership have been full-fledged failures and the green economy approach as pushed at Rio+20 is more a “greenwashing” of business-as-usual than the transformative turning away from the destructive policies of the past that we need.  The ongoing UN process about developing the SDGs risks oversimplifying complex interlinkages by focusing on “tweetable goals” in bite-sized, not comprehensive approaches. Speaking from the experience of the Women’s Major Group in the post-Rio+20 process, in which WEDO has a coordinating role, Eleanor stressed that for many governments the “gender and”-linkage to various SDG issue areas (such as climate change, oceans and biodiversity, economic and trade) is still a conceptual challenge with many decision-makers often asking, “why is this a women’s issue?”  The women’s and gender groups active inside and outside various UN processes going on in 2014 and 2015 in parallel (such as the Beijing +20 review coming up, the SDG and the Cairo + 20 review) have to focus therefore on breaking down and explaining some of the crucial linkages and work on integrating gender considerations throughout diverse issue areas.

The mainstreaming approach popularized as a gender policy tool in the post-Beijing area, in the observation of many feminist and gender groups, has too often just lead to being mainstreamed into oblivion, but not the rethinking and refocusing of policy approaches that a mainstreaming, or ‘integrative’, agenda would entail.  She highlighted the importance of a human-right framing and accountability of public and private actors, as well as some advances in anchoring textual references to human rights and women’s contributions (“markers”) in previously gender-blind multilateral processes, for example, in recent climate negotiation texts under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) or the OWG process recommendations on the SDGs.  Like previous speakers, Eleanor also stressed the importance of so-called means of implementation, especially providing adequate financial support or capacity-building, for gender-equitable sustainable development. 

Highlighting some experiences from ongoing efforts on ensuring gender-responsive climate financing – an important means of implementation for projects and programs that address climate change in developing countries, Liane Schalatek pointed to the opportunity and the challenge of the Green Climate Fund (GCF).  With some textual anchors in its framework document, it has the potential to become the first multilateral, and possible globally the most important, climate fund to integrate a gender perspective from the outset.  The GCF Board, which is currently working to operationalize the fund to receive and disburse money, has taken first steps to implement the GCF’s mandate for a gender-sensitive approach.  However, the criteria the fund will use to approve projects and programs; the indicators it will choose to measure results and the fund’s impact to contribute to a transformation change towards low-carbon and climate-resilient development; its use of scarce public resources to not just incentive private sector investments but also fund those activities which will not provide a financial return of investment but have multiple non-financial benefits for communities, livelihoods and gender equality; or whether and how it engages comprehensively with multiple stakeholders, including marginalized groups in countries which are to receive GCF funding will determine if the GCF can be a gender-transformational climate fund.

The question and answer session addressed among other issues the role of care givers – not just women and mothers – for raising an environmentally and socially aware and justice and equity seeking next generation; focused on the need for coherence of various global policy and governance frameworks (trade regime, G20, international finance institutions, UN, climate regime, etc.); and highlighted current shortcomings of both the UN system and nation states in providing a counter-weight to powerful multinational corporations through accountability systems and mechanisms.  In this context, one speaker lamented for example the closure of a corporation-focused accountability unit in the UN system, the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC) to be replaced by a largely uncritical “partnership” focus, and the need for civil society and states to call for its urgent return.