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OPINION: Will UK government ensure women's voices are heard at COP26 climate summit?

by Helen Pankhurst | CARE International - UK
Wednesday, 11 November 2020 15:38 GMT

Women walk in an area affected by a mudslide after the passage of Storm Eta, in Purulha, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala, November 6, 2020. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Women worldwide are bearing the heaviest burden in dealing with the effects of the climate crisis while lacking the power to decide how to tackle it

The U.N. climate change summit, COP26, was due to begin in Glasgow this week. Countries were expected to report back on their carbon reduction plans made five years ago in Paris. It was supposed to be an opportunity to hold leaders to account for their action thus far, and for nations to update their plans and reinvigorate the work addressing climate change.

Like so much else this year, COP26 has been postponed due to COVID-19. But while we postpone the action, we don’t have the option of postponing the problem. Climate change and the risks it poses continue apace. It remains an existential threat. 

We might think that climate change is something that will affect the world as whole in the distant future - yet in many parts of the world it is already a real and present danger. And, as usual when it comes to crises, it is the most marginalised and the poorest communities that are already suffering the effects. They are the ones least able to prepare for and rebuild after extreme weather and natural disasters.

Just like every crisis, environmental shocks also play out differently for women and men.

Back in early March, on International Women’s Day – which feels like a lifetime ago - thousands of us marched on the streets of London as part of CARE International’s March4Women. We were highlighting the fact that environmental disasters are not gender neutral and we were showing some of the links between climate justice and gender justice.

Around the world, women are bearing the heaviest burden of climate change - of dealing with the after-effects of crises without being in the driving seat, without the power to make the decisions that could really make a difference.  

Local women’s organisations are often on the frontline responding to climate emergencies in their communities, in caring roles and in rebuilding homes and livelihoods. Yet these groups are often excluded from the meetings where decisions are made. A knock-on effect of women’s exclusion is that they cannot access funding for addressing the climate crisis.

Yet, where women’s voices are heard, where women are more equally represented, countries have adopted stronger climate change policies and are  more likely to prioritise equality

Looking ahead to COP26 in November 2021, we have called on all governments – including our own here in the UK – to be aware of the links between climate and gender justice, and to act on both.

We were dismayed to learn in September that the UK government had appointed an all-male team to host the COP26 next year. This move was contrary to the UN agreement which highlighted the need for women’s equal participation in climate negotiations. Could there be a clearer demonstration of myopia? Of the UK team not taking gender justice or women’s leadership seriously?


Civil society organisations, including CARE International, campaigned for a gender-equal and diverse COP26 panel. Last weekend the government announced it would be adding Anne-Marie Trevelyan to the COP26 team. This is a step forward - a good start - but it’s not enough, and it is gender parity that is required.

Trevelyan served as the last Secretary of State for International Development from February to September 2020, stepping down following the merger of Department for International Development and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Trevelyan’s appointment to the COP26 team also highlights the role civil society organisations can play in holding governments to account.

It will be key that her role as “Adaptation and Resilience Champion” focuses on how climate change affects women differently. And the whole team must support representation of women from the Global South and ensure their voices are heard.

This week, CARE International, the Women in Sustainability Network and Ethical Hour handed a petition of almost 5,000 signatures to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and UK COP President Alok Sharma, urging them to make gender justice central to the COP26 agenda.

The UK is set to release its national action plan on how it will meet the Paris Agreement before the end of the year. Ensuring this plan addresses gender equality, in terms of representation, the different impact on women and men, and funding is essential. 

The government appointing one woman to its COP26 panel is a step in the right direction. But when will we stop having to demand that women are fairly and equally represented from the outset? When will we no longer have to demand that their specific experiences are addressed, rather than dismissed or marginalised? 

Here’s hoping COP26 leads the way in addressing the links between climate justice and gender justice.

Helen Pankhurst is CARE International UK's Special Adviser on Gender Equality.