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At UN Climate Talks, Highly Trained Women Play Critical Role

Abidah Billah Setyowati 000

Two decades after first joining together to make their voices heard at the Earth Summit in Rio, women environmental leaders continue to make progress at the recent UN conference, though it produced only limited gains on climate change.

As the UN climate change conference drew to a close over the weekend in Durban, South Africa, women's voices were being heard far more than ever before. Still, following COP-17—the Conference of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol—there is work to be done to insure a fully gendered perspective when the world gathers to make decisions on environmental sustainability.

“We’ve gained ground rhetorically but what’s missing is the implementation of specific goals and activities,” says Eleanor Blomstrom, program coordinator The Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). “That’s starting to happen now.”

It’s happening because of organized efforts like the Global Gender and Climate Alliance (GGCA), a network of civil society organizations and UN agencies “working together to ensure that climate change decision-making, policies and initiatives, at all levels, are gender responsive.” In launching GGCA, organizers emphasized that “women are powerful agents of change” and that “their leadership is critical in addressing all aspects of sustainable development and natural resource management,” including research and policymaking.

Abidah Billah Setyowati is an example of emerging women leaders who advance gender-sensitive policies to address climate change and other key environmental issues. Currently working on her PhD in political ecology at Rutgers University, Setyowati grew up in rural Java, Indonesia, “where women were seen as konco wingking, a companion whose place is in the back of the house.” Valuing higher education as “a door to thousands of possibilities and opportunities,” Setyowati has made good use of grants and fellowships, first earning a master’s degree in geography at the University of Hawaii with support from the Ford Foundation's International Fellowships Program (IFP), then as a Fulbright Scholar. Her PhD research, underwritten by a United Nations Development Program grant, focuses on women’s involvement in the conservation and management of forests and forest-based communities.

Setyowati learned that effective environmental policymaking and implementation are especially complex because of “power relations in natural resources governance.”

She says the world cannot meet its challenges “using environmental science perspectives per se as the problems are closely connected to social, economic, and political circumstances.” Working to promote a participatory approach to natural resources management, she confronted gender-based justice issues. “I noticed that even though women have contributed significantly to [for example] forest and water management, they are rarely engaged in the decision-making processes nor are they acknowledged as an important stakeholder.” Now her professional work with environmental NGOs and international organizations places heavy emphasis on promoting gender justice as well as good natural resources and climate governance.

The importance of cultivating women leaders with weighty academic credentials is underscored by IFP executive director, Joan Dassin. “The international community is right to prioritize education for girls,” she says, “but we also need to consider the direct path between higher education and social justice. An untold number of women from underserved communities around the world have the academic and leadership capacity, as well as the social commitment, required for graduate study at top universities, where they would gain access to education, training, and professional networks they need to develop impactful careers.” The problem is that “most lack access to a university system because of their gender, economic background, religion or ethnicity.”

IFP recruits thousands of fellowship recipients in 22 countries—half are women and most return to their home countries to apply their leadership skills after studying abroad. “IFP has seen that developing more inclusive higher education policies not only empowers women but can lead to a real, measurable impact,” says Dassin. “This has tremendous implications for a wide variety of sectors, especially those in which women already play important socio-economic roles by virtue of their gender, but have not been given a voice, or the skills they need.” Citing Abidah Billah Setyowati as an example of the critical role women with higher education can play at meetings like COP-17, Dassin points to the importance of Setyowati’s research.

“Women can and should play a leading role in forest management and governance. Not only do their livelihoods depend on it but their experience with forest resources makes them extremely knowledgeable stakeholders,” she says.

The fact that women have traditionally been excluded when climate change strategies are devised “is a waste of valuable input, talent and expertise. Abidah is giving voice to indigenous women who deserve a seat at the negotiating table, while at the same time holding policymakers accountable,” she says. The United Nations and its members have clearly begun to recognize the need for a gender focus as they look ahead to June 2012, when the global conference “Rio + 20” assesses two decades of progress made toward environmental sustainability. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, for example, is one of three UN conventions with an articulated gender focus going into “Rio + 20.” Several UN agencies are also working with WEDO within the framework of the Global Gender and Climate Alliance to ensure that gender is a recognized component of the 2012 program.

The UN environmental plan of action, Agenda 21, was “a blueprint for action but it lacked accountability mechanisms,” WEDO’s Eleanor Blomstrom points out. Now, because women's rights and gender equality groups are highlighting the strong linkages among such entities as COP-17 and the UN Commission on the Status of Women—as well as upcoming assessments of UN population and development policies and the Millennium Development Goals—accountability measures are more likely to be established at “Rio+20.”

Women with impressive education and demonstrated leadership skills are also more likely to be at the table in Rio as implementation documents are written, monitoring plans developed, and funding mechanisms established. As Abidah Billah Setyowati knows, that could open the door to “thousands of possibilities.”

More articles by Category: Environment, International
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