By Ashley Eberhart
Recently, I worked on a Dalberg project to improve the livelihoods of people in fishing communities. At the outset, we expected to focus on giving fishermen access to better gear, so that they could catch higher-value fish and increase their incomes. However, as we began our research, we realized that this approach would exclude nearly half of the broader fishing industry: the women. Most people who catch fish are men, but much of the industry involves jobs frequently filled by women, including processing fish before sale. As a result, we began exploring other ideas – such as improving facilities and training for women to process fish – that could increase the value of fish products, and therefore, the incomes of male fishermen and women processors.
Applying this “gender lens” to development is particularly relevant this week, as people around the world celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD). Festivities kick off today at noon in New York City, where members of the United Nations and development community will gather to reflect on the UN’s 2014 IWD theme: “Equality for women is progress for all.”
Women make up half the global population, but 70% of the world’s poor; it should come as no surprise, then, that we can apply a gender lens to every development issue. “Applying a gender lens” is a strategy used in development to not only to examine how a social issue affects a whole community of people, but also to consider how each person’s gender affects the way he or she experiences that particular issue.
Take climate change, for example. The development community can apply a gender lens to three approaches to combatting climate change, ultimately doing so more effectively:
Increasing agricultural production in an environmentally sustainable way. To increase food supply to meet global demand, we must either turn more land into farmland (usually through activities like deforestation that speed up climate change), or make existing farmland more productive. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has found that giving low-income women access to the same agricultural tools and technologies as men could increase farm yields by 30%, reducing the number of hungry people in the world by 12-17% without expanding farmland through environmental degradation.
Encouraging adoption of sustainable products. Clean cookstoves provide a more efficient alternative to traditional cooking methods, which produce carbon emissions that disproportionately harm the health of women and children and hurt the environment. Women’s buying patterns differ from men’s; women adopt environmentally-friendly buying practices more readily than men and tend to purchase products that improve the health and wellbeing of their families. As a result, women are likely to find clean cookstoves appealing, making the product well-suited for women-focused marketing.
The impact on the environment from this approach would be significant: women consumers represent over 166 million households in India alone. Moreover, globally, women already control or have direct influence over 65% of consumer spending – and their buying power in emerging markets is projected to rise significantly by 2025.
Contributing to a sustainable level of population growth. Meeting the food and energy needs of a rapidly growing global population is a major hurdle in efforts to fight climate change. Population growth slows when women are empowered to plan when and if they want children, but over 200 million sexually active women who do not want to have a child do not use contraception – meaning that up to 85% will become pregnant within a year. Improving access to family planning – which includes teaching women how to use contraceptives and designing products that recognize the power dynamics between men and women – can play a major role in mitigating climate change. In fact, the Aspen Institute estimates that the relative carbon emissions reduction of making family planning accessible to all women who want it would be equivalent to stopping all deforestation globally.
Considering how gender affects the experience of climate change yields an additional interesting conclusion: climate change poses a major threat to achieving gender equality, suggesting opportunities for organizations fighting climate change and those focused on women’s rights to collaborate.
Women experience environmental shocks and stresses differently – and more negatively – than men. Research suggests that during environmental disasters, women’s mortality is up to 14 times higher than men’s and human trafficking may increase by 20-30%, mostly affecting vulnerable women who have lost their homes, spouses, and support networks. The everyday stresses of climate change – from drought to unpredictable rainfall patterns – also harm women in particular; they must travel longer distances to find water and firewood for their household, which leaves them vulnerable to attack and sexual violence.
While a gender lens is often used to uncover ways in which women are more vulnerable or marginalized, it can also reveal women’s enormous potential to drive positive impact for their families, their communities, and the planet. On International Women’s Day we challenge you, as we challenge ourselves, to use the gender lens to help secure “progress for all.”
Sneha Sheth contributed research and insights to this article.