The 2030 deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is fast approaching, yet the goal posts continue to move as the effects of climate change intensify each year. Whilst there are many activities, projects and programmes in place to address the 17 goals, perhaps the most critical is SDG 5, ‘achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls’, because if this is achieved, it will have positive, cascading effect across all other SDGs.
Take goal 13; ‘Climate Action’ for example. The devastating effects of climate change are becoming more frequent with increasing floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters. Women are often disproportionately affected by extreme weather events due to their socio-economic status, restricted land rights, lack of access to training, technology and financial resources and limited access to political decision making due to under representation. This all means that women remain a largely untapped resource in the fight against climate change. However, for practical and effective climate change mitigation, we must unleash the knowledge, power and capability of women.
A recent report found that “a nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilises its women” and whether they have “the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men.” Therefore, by preventing women contributing to the climate change battle, wider economic losses are felt. For instance, according to McKinsey, in a “full potential” scenario in which women play an identical role in labour markets to men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26%, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025. This amount is capable of bridging the climate finance gap needed to fund the battle against climate change, which stands at EUR 530bn ($585bn) per year by 2020 and EUR 810bn ($894bn) by 2030. Indeed, just increasing the participation of women in the labour force will sufficiently increase the world's GDP for financing sustainable development.
One of the major hurdles to tackling climate change is to reduce the reliance on carbon-base fuel. Renewable energy is a powerful tool in mitigating climate change and it can also help transform the lives of women by improving their health, providing them with better livelihood prospects, improving their education opportunities and more.
Renewable energy also offers entrepreneurial avenues for further deployment, which women could adopt, in turn mitigates carbon emissions. For example, the Solar Sister initiative in Africa, invests in female-run renewable energy businesses recruiting, training and supporting female entrepreneurs to build businesses and bring clean energy to their communities. Since launching, the initiative has supported 4,000 clean energy entrepreneurs and brought clean energy sources to 1.5 million people across Africa.
In another example, the tribal women in Udaipur, Rajasthan, have learnt to build solar lamps transforming uneducated women into engineers able to make 60,000 lamps within three months. Once they have made the lamps, they package and market them in remote areas without access to electricity earning them a wage and ensuring that these rural communities have access to power.
Also in Rajasthan, the Barefoot College is training female solar engineers. The college was set up in 1972 by Sanjit "Bunker" Roy to teach rural people skills with which they could transform their villages, regardless of gender, caste, ethnicity, age or schooling. The college has since trained 15,000 women in skills including solar engineering, healthcare and water testing, empowering them to lift their families out of poverty through skill. In educating these women, it has also helped address historical discrimination issues. For example, Santosh Devi, a graduate of the college grew up avoiding the upper caste people of her village or cover her face in their presence. Nowadays, these are the people seeking her help. "For them, I am a solar engineer who can repair and install the light installations," she says. "From looking down on the ground when higher caste people passed to looking them in the eye, I never imagined this would have been possible."
Whilst these are heartening examples of equality creating a ripple effect of benefits, inequality is still holding us back and more needs to be done. For example, at the national level, effective policies, projects and programmes for gender equality must be crafted to ensure equal space and resources for women and men to participate in climate change decision making.
There must also be more investments made into a multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral climate change strategy that integrates gender-related concerns and build on the capabilities, unique knowledge and perspectives of women, to not only build climate resilience but also to drive socioeconomic success. In addition, finance should be made available equally to men and to women seeking to fund initiatives that support climate change programmes, promoting equality rather than exacerbating existing prejudices and barriers.
The UN’s SDG Agenda 2030 motto refuses to “leave anyone behind”. Gender equality is a key part of this ambition and in the future, equality must be a priority to governments and private sectors around the world. The benefits of inclusivity are too great, and the cost too dangerous to ignore. As explained by a paper by UN Women in 2015, “women’s empowerment and gender equality have a catalytic effect on the achievement of human development, good governance, sustained peace, and harmonious dynamics between the environment and human populations”. As a result, girl power really could save the world.
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