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We must secure women's land rights to tackle climate vulnerability

The inequality in women’s land rights is directly relevant to the climate change negotiations that have just been concluded this month at COP27 in Egypt. [iStockphoto]

Globally, more than 400 million women work in agriculture, producing the majority of the world’s food (Landesa, 2016). In Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, women represent 60% to 80% of the agricultural workforce. Yet according to the UN Women Commission on the status of women, women own less than 20% of the world's land and lack equal rights to access, control and use land in over 90 countries. This represents very uneven ground (Landesa, 2016).

This inequality in women’s land rights is directly relevant to the climate change negotiations that have just been concluded this month at COP27 in Egypt. But why?  Because, if we hope to curtail climate breakdown, we urgently need a global reckoning with the way we value women and the environment, both of which lay victim to exploitative and extractive processes.

In a world where women are disproportionately dependent on natural resources, highly vulnerable to the climate crisis, and key conservers of land and nature, inequality in land tenure has massive impacts on the vulnerability of women and girls and, by extension, on the ecosystem balance.

A lack of recognition of women’s ownership of and relationship with land increases women’s vulnerability in a multitude of ways: 

First, women and girls are more likely to become impoverished and be displaced with women making up 80% of climate refugees around the world. According to the United Nations Human Rights (2022), these two factors culminate in higher risks of sexual violence and exploitation. Large-scale land acquisitions push women off their land, severing ties to their communities, homes and access to the food they need for subsistence or livelihoods. At the same time, women are less likely to secure alternative work in these situations due to disproportionate care burdens.

Second, discrimination, cultural and legal factors, in some countries, prevent women from legally accessing or owning the land they live and work on after divorce or the death of their husbands. This can lead to poverty, displacement, and sexual exploitation.

Third, women are often left out of data banks and access to subsidies that guide agricultural support and climate adaptation programs due to a lack of secure tenure. Moreover, they lack access to financial credit and loans to improve their livelihoods and reduce vulnerability to climate change. Exclusion has meant that governments lack data and evidence on their participation creating wider gaps in gender-responsive programming and decision-making spaces regarding land and climate action.

Beyond the effects on women and girls and their rights, inequalities in land rights also increase the vulnerability of their children, communities and the environment more widely. GROOTS Kenya has learned first-hand, through its more than 27 years of work with networks of rural women in Kenya, that harassment of women involved in protecting land rights, along with routine marginalization and exclusion of women from decision-making spaces, stalls adaptation and mitigation efforts and increases global vulnerability to climate change.

What can be done beyond COP 27?

First, shifting the fortunes of grassroots women and girls by investing in changing their attitudes and behaviour, as well as by growing their skills and capacity to effectively participate in the development as equal partners and not as recipients of aid is a critical approach that GROOTS Kenya favours. This is meant to promote and advance women’s access to the use and control of productive resources (land, finance, technology) and to promote grassroots women’s engagement in climate solutions and resilience building.

Second, partnerships with the state(Kenya National Bureau of Statistics) and non-state actors (Equal Measures 2030, UN Women, SDGs Kenya Forum among others) to increase the production, visualization and dissemination of gender data and statistics that contribute to the evidence that is disseminated to anchor community-led data-driven advocacy capacities for essential services.

Third, adopting feminist principles throughout the climate movement, led by women and girls will anchor mitigation and adaptation approaches towards a more equitable, sustainable and resilient future.

How can these be achieved?

  • Decentralizing financing to ensure that local, grassroots women and girls organisations have resources to invest in adaptation strategies towards increased food security for households; increased income for women and girls; reduced impacts of disaster and pandemics; and positive health impact.
  • Bridging the theoretical climate science discourse to practices that can be sustainably adopted by local women, girls and their communities as well as investing in research on gender-preferred climate change practices and information services.
  • Designing policies and investing in efforts to reduce unpaid care burdens on women and girls in favour of increased productive time e.g in the water and energy sectors.