Five Ways Women Lead on Addressing Climate Change

And Three Ways We Can Empower them to Lead More

Climate change poses incredible challenges for women and girls in the developing world. The impacts of climate change disproportionately impact women and girls by barring them from accessing increasingly scarce natural resources, leaving them more vulnerable to extreme weather events and limiting their opportunities for education and income-generating activities, which harms their overall health and wellbeing. 

Research shows that women’s participation improves the efficacy of climate change adaptation and mitigation programs. Yet, women are often barred from participating in climate action; an unfortunate fact that USAID’s Climate Strategy 2022-2030 hopes to counteract by centering the role of women and other marginalized groups on climate action. 

Last month, I had the pleasure of moderating an event entitled “Frontiers: Women Leading Solutions to Climate Change” to discuss a critically important question: How can we empower women to continue to lead the fight against climate change? 

This webinar, co-hosted by USAID and New America on the sidelines of the 66th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), hosted seven powerful women in conversation about how climate change poses unique threats to women, and the ways in which women are uniquely positioned to find and deliver solutions to this critical challenge. 

Here, in the event participants’ own words, are five ways women are already leading on climate change solutions, and five ways we can help them become an even stronger voice in this fight.

  1. Women uniquely understand the challenge, because they live it 

To quote American public interest attorney and author, Bryan Stevenson: “We cannot create justice without getting close to places where injustices prevail. We have to get proximate.” 

Women around the world are uniquely proximate to the impacts of climate change. Indeed, as USAID Chief Climate Officer Gillian Caldwell pointed out, climate change disproportionately impacts women and girls, limiting their opportunities for education and income-generating activities, harming their health and wellbeing, and increasing their exposure to gender-based violence and exploitation. Women and children are significantly more likely than men to die from climate disasters such as droughts and floods. 

But this inequity creates an opportunity: women understand from firsthand experience the impacts of climate change, and they see opportunities to address them on the ground. 

As an Agency, we are helping provide platforms and channels for women and girls to turn this proximity into power, by sharing their unique perspectives and the solutions they have developed. USAID’s new Climate Strategy prioritizes partnering with women and other marginalized groups on climate action and the U.S. Government’s new  Gender Equity and Equality Action (GEEA) Fund, is expanding resources for this work, helping advance women’s and girls’ leadership and participation to help tackle the climate crisis.  

2. Women see distinct signals, based on the role they play in the household

The division of responsibilities in a household gives women and men unique insights into opportunities to combat climate change. For example, Jamille Bigio, USAID’s Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, pointed out that women and girls often collect water and firewood for the household, and can therefore see changes to forests and water resources in a way that men do not. As they go about their lives, women frequent places within climate-vulnerable urban centers that men do not, and therefore have unique perspectives about infrastructure and affordable housing needs to make urban areas more resilient. And, women have distinct perspectives on green economic opportunities, based on the jobs they hold. 

These perspectives can serve as components of early warning systems for climate impacts and also allow us to spot opportunities for climate action. One example of compelling work at this nexus of gender and climate action is USAID’s partnership with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, called AGENT, which recognizes women as agents of environmental change.

Our challenge as an Agency is to learn how to share and amplify the climate threat signals picked up by women and girls, and the unique solutions they propose.

3. Female leaders help communities better manage their natural resources

Studies show that when women are engaged as decision-makers —not just on climate action but on any aspect of community planning—their communities do a better job at managing resources and protecting against climate shocks. 

Rights and Resources Initiative Coordinator Solange Bandiaky-Badji shared that when Indigenous women manage community forests, they step up to protect land more effectively. Bandiaky-Badji shared a recent experience in Nepal, where Indigenous women worked collaboratively through the 2021 monsoon season to plant lime trees on over 25 hectares of government and privately owned farmland, and restore degraded land through aquaculture. The combination of these women’s traditional knowledge of land and focus on collaboration allowed them to ensure a productive harvesting season in the midst of a drought and a pandemic. The Nepalese government was so impressed with this effort that it has since provided these women with grants and subsidies to scale up their efforts. 

To echo Bandiaky-Badji’s words: “When we support initiatives that are conceived and implemented by women themselves, we allow them to lead instead of just being bystanders in climate solutions.”

4. Women are on the climate activism front line

As New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter said: Women are often the ‘rule takers’, men are the ‘rule makers’ … but, women regularly become the ‘rule breakers.’  Indeed, women are often the ones speaking out against entrenched interests and large polluters, even when doing so subjects them to threats and gender-based violence, and imperils their livelihoods and lives. 

Many of the most outspoken climate activists and land and environmental defenders, from Berta Caceres to Greta Thunberg, are female. Women have formed grassroots organizations, like Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu in Colombia and the Mujeres Amazónicas in Ecuador, to mobilize against environmental threats, and have organized nonviolent protests on climate challenges ranging from deforestation in India to mining activities endangering water access for rural households in Latin America.

As Gillian Caldwell observed during the panel: “Many of these brave women are standing up against powerful companies that are threatening the survival of the planet and in many cases these companies are working in close coordination with governments.” 

5. Women don’t’ just speak up for themselves, they speak up for the vulnerable

Gillian Caldwell made the point that women are better equipped to speak to the justice and equity considerations of climate action, whether those relate to gender, or to the protection of other vulnerable groups. Tracy Farrell, Director, North American Region, International Union for Conservation of Nature, echoed this observation, pointing to a study of 300 forest groups across the world that found that groups run by women were more inclusive and just.

Women leaders don’t just promote people-centered policies; studies find that their decisions are more planet-centered. In her remarks Farrell pointed to USAID’s AGENT project, which found that female parliamentarians tend to make policies that are more inclusive of the environment. 

Three Ways We Can Empower the Leadership of Women on Climate Action

There is so much more we can do to support and amplify women’s leadership on climate, and help empower a new generation of climate leaders. As Jamille Bigio rightly pointed out: “There are women leaders on the ground already advancing solutions, and they just need our support to help amplify their work.”

Event participants shared three ways in which we can further empower women to become leaders in the fight against climate change. 

  1. Ensure the women’s tenure rights are secure 

Research shows that strengthening women’s land and resource rights has a striking and positive impact on women’s empowerment, allowing them to play a leading role in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Secure tenure rights also make women more resilient to climate shocks.

Yet, as Bandiaky-Badji explained, women legally own less than one fifth of the world’s agricultural land, and in Africa, fifty percent of legal frameworks governing land and forests do not contain community-level provisions specific to women. Farrell pointed out that this lack of land ownership limits women’s access to finance and other resources to implement climate change solutions.   

To equip women to lead on climate change, we must invest in ensuring women have equal and secure rights to land and natural resources within their communities. USAID is supporting work to strengthen women’s land rights in a number of countries, including new work in Cote d’Ivoire to help women exercise and protect legal rights to land and through its Mobile Applications to Secure Tenure (MAST) approach.  MAST is helping women in three countries register land rights at the same rate as their male counterparts. 

  1. Train women to be leaders, and build their decision-making capacity 

Rili Djohani, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Coral Triangle Center, stressed that if we want women to lead on climate change, we must provide them with leadership training and mentorship opportunities. These efforts give women the confidence to demand a seat at the table, and also help shift gender norms and normalize women’s participation and leadership in rooms typically dominated by men. 

For example, the Coral Triangle Initiative has created an intergenerational mentor program that links senior female leaders with up and coming leaders. 

And while leadership training is a critical component of building up women’s voices, so is job training and other support that empowers women economically. The Coral Triangle Initiative has engaged women in seaweed cultivation and trained them to make seaweed snacks to sell on the local market. Djohani shared that training women to make and sell these products not only helps them improve livelihoods and empower economically, but also gives them the skills to engage in other decisions in the village. 

USAID has also focused on building the leadership skills of women who work in industries at the front lines of climate change. For example, through the Engendering Industries program, USAID supports women’s meaningful participation in male-dominated water and power sectors to improve gender equity and improve business outcomes.

  1. Explicitly define the role of women in national and international climate policies 

Farrell pointed out that a critical piece of empowering women to lead on climate change is explicitly including them in national and international frameworks, policies and mechanisms aimed at curbing emissions, reducing deforestation, adapting to climate impacts and financing climate solutions. USAID’s AGENT initiative found that 80% of newly revised Nationally Determined Contributions include gender in some way. This is a significant stride that must be taken up by other climate frameworks and policies. 

Farrell recommended that countries adopt Climate Change Gender Action Plans to ensure women are included holistically in climate action, and that their participation is tracked with indicators. 

As this panel made clear, while women face disparate impacts from climate change, they bring unique solutions and the courageous leadership that we need. Supporting women with secure rights, training, funding, and opportunities to shape policy can in turn increase women’s engagement and empowerment to make the necessary progress we need to tackle the climate crisis.