Sustainability and women’s empowerment

Tomorrow, March 8, is the United Nations-promoted “International Women’s Day” with the theme for the year being “Gender Equality Today for a sustainable tomorrow”. Anticipating that the connection of sustainable development and gender equality might be puzzling to some, the UN suggested five initiatives that could be undertaken by Governments and civil society to make that connection. Fortunately for us in Guyana, the Government has anticipated many of the initiatives in its now two-year drive to accelerate our development as we combat climate change.
The first exhortation is to “empower women smallholders” in farming. Some may not realise that women farmers comprise a very signifying component of our agriculture sector but they do. While this is true in some of the major crops like paddy, their presence is even more pronounced in the diversified cash crop area in which greater value is added than with commodities. The Government has undertaken – and is funding – several initiatives in this area and women farmers should be specifically targeted. Since their diversified crops are not among the 12 plant and 5 animal species that generate 75 per cent of the world’s food, encouragement in this area should help make the global food system more resilient to environmental shocks.
The UN advised that “at both the national and the community level, women’s representation and leadership appear to drive better environmental outcomes. Countries with higher percentages of women in Parliament tend to adopt stricter climate change policies, resulting in lower emissions”.
As such, it advises “support for women’s leadership” and in this area, Guyana is very far ahead of most countries. We have one of the pioneering and most far-reaching national climate change plans in addition to having one of the highest percentages of female MPs and Cabinet members. Another area where we are ahead concerns Indigenous women, who “possess unique knowledge about agriculture, conservation, and natural resource management that make their voices indispensable in any decision-making processes”. They were part of our REDD initiatives.
Thirdly, it is advised that we “fund women’s organisations” and as we can observe almost daily in the press, women’s organisations are sprouting in almost every facet of national life – but especially in business to take advantage of the oil-induced growth explosion. As explained, “Government collaboration with women’s organisations can help ensure that climate policies meet the specific needs of women and girls and that such policies are effectively implemented. In vulnerable communities, women’s organisations often act as an informal safety net, bridging gaps in Government services and helping to provide emergency support. Empowering such community networks is a crucial way to build climate resilience at the local level.”
Fourthly, we should “protect women’s health”. “Evidence suggests that women will bear the brunt of climate-linked negative health outcomes. Research indicates that climate change will have negative sexual and reproductive health impacts: higher temperatures are increasing the spread of diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and Zika virus, which are linked to negative pregnancy and birth outcomes, and extreme heat itself appears to increase the incidence of stillbirth. As with other crises and disasters, climate change also increases vulnerability to gender-based violence.” Guyana has an unacceptably high maternal death rate and the Government has announced the creation of a dedicated hospital for women and children.
Lastly and most germanely, we are advised to “invest in care”. As explained, “The global economy depends on the unpaid and underpaid care work primarily carried out by women. But despite its essential nature –– which we’ve seen more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic –– this work is not valued in accordance with its worth. Rather, care work (much like the environment) is treated like a limitless commodity that can be used without cost or consequence.
“Instead, Governments should treat care work like a collective good, expanding its availability and providing adequate support to those who do it. This includes investing in the expansion of care services, as well as increasing support for unpaid caregivers There’s a role for the Private Sector as well, in supporting unpaid care work through paid family leave and flexible working arrangements.”