Four reasons why gender is an essential part of sustainable development

Marbles of the planet Earth

One of the biggest events in the international gender equality calendar starts on 14 March. The 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will take place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York until 24 March 2016, attended by state representatives, advocates for gender equality and UN representatives from across the world. 

The priority theme for this year’s CSW is ‘Women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development.’ Often associated with the environment, the UN has a wider definition for sustainability as calling for: ‘a decent standard of living for everyone today without compromising the needs of future generations.’ 

Gender equality is an essential element of sustainable and inclusive development. Here are just four of the reasons why:

1. Women are part of the solution 

Where women are already playing a crucial role in developing sustainable development solutions, their contributions are often not recognised. For example, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) women comprise around 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. The percentage is as high as, or even higher than, 80 per cent in some countries in sub- Saharan Africa. This makes women the principle agents of food security and household welfare in rural areas. Yet this highly significant contribution is too often under-estimated or invisible. Women and girls may be vulnerable in many ways due to inequitable social and cultural factors, but they should also be seen as rights-holding citizens, recognised for the agency, skills and experience they can contribute. 

There is often a significant gender disparity in decision-making at all levels: from local communities to international governance. For example, women make up just 23 per cent of the world’s MPs. Not only does this gender imbalance result in unrepresentative policies, but it denies women the right to participate and have a political voice. 

As highlighted by one of the official documents associated with CSW, ‘Women’s empowerment and the links to sustainable development’: ‘Women’s knowledge, agency and collective action are key to exploring and creating more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development pathways.’

More deliberately transformative approaches that go beyond increasing women’s productivity have the potential to challenge existing gender power imbalances and, by doing so, can contribute to the realisation of greater gender equality.

2. Resource shortages are gendered

The worsening shortage of, and lack of access to, resources such as water, energy and food sources. This could have huge implications for gender equality. 

The rising threat of food insecurity, with both the production and consumption of food being highly gendered, is a large part of this. In many cases women are increasingly carrying the burden of the additional work resulting from a more unpredictable climate and worsening crop failures. Women’s lack of access to resources, such as land and finance, make them more vulnerable to food shortages and to fluctuations in prices. Evidence shows that women are forced to spend more time and energy searching for affordable, nutritious food. They may also be reducing their own food intake to ensure their family members don’t go hungry. 

There are also clear gender dimensions of energy poverty, with the gendered division of household tasks and reproductive activities meaning that women are often the primary users of household energy. 

Water security is another gendered issue; many poor women access water from ‘common property’ such as rivers, but the freedom to use these sources is being restricted as water becomes scarce. Water has turned into a marketable commodity, with supply increasingly being contracted out to private providers. As a result women may be forced to walk longer distances for a supply that is free to access.

3. Climate change is hitting women and girls harder

The environment and climate are often most associated with sustainability. Women and men do not experience the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation equally. For example, economic constraints and cultural norms can restrict women’s access to paid employment mean that their livelihoods are particularly dependent on climate-sensitive sectors, such as subsistence agriculture or water collection. 

In many ways climate change acts as a magnifying glass which exposes and risks exacerbating pre-existing gender inequalities in women’s access to and control of resources and decision-making power, making women in poverty, or other marginalised groups, more vulnerable to its effects and preventing them from participating equally in its solutions. 

4. It’s not just about women

‘Gender’ has become a ‘catch all’ term in many contexts, used to describe a range of issues in an apolitical way. It is often understood as being only about women’s needs, rather than about the unequal social relationships between women and men that are invested with power. This results in less effective policies, institutions and processes and means that the potential of these to contribute to social change is missed. 

Working for sustainability presents an opportunity to not only acknowledge global inequalities and the unequal power relations between men and women but to challenge these inequalities and, by doing so, contribute to social and gender transformation. 

Find out more

BRIDGE pages on food security and climate change.

BRIDGE Cutting Edge Packs on food security and climate change.

Search for resources on gender and sustainable development in the BRIDGE Global Resources Database.