Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak is the president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the current U.N. Climate Change High-Level Champion.
This morning, on International Women’s Day, many women all around the world will wake up and go about their lives and business as usual.
A young girl in Kenya will depart on a long half-hour walk from her home to fetch wood, which will serve as fuel for her family. A mother in Florida will leave earlier for her daily school run, since her usual route has flooded. An Arhuaco matriarch in Colombia will gather the ever-dwindling supply of plant medicines that will help take care of her community. And in Turkey, a woman who lost everything in the recent earthquakes will begin the difficult task of rebuilding with the help of remaining friends and family.
What do all of these women have in common?
They’re central to their communities and are the backbone of their families. They’re the key decision-makers when it comes to food, fuel, child-rearing, land, household and resource management. They also, unfortunately, constitute the majority of the world’s poor, and are among those most impacted by the double threat of climate change and loss of nature.
Yet, at the highest level of representation, where their leadership is most needed, their voices are largely unheard. And the best way to celebrate women — today, and every day — isn’t to just include and elevate their voices but to nurture them as leaders. The future of our planet depends on it.
Many years ago, when working to help revive the fishery sector in Abu Dhabi, my home in the United Arab Emirates, my colleagues and I had noticed that the main fish market — usually buzzing with activity — was semi-dormant, with only tiny catch sizes of small fish available.
We spent countless hours in focus groups with fishermen, trying to figure out exactly what had gone wrong, but to no avail. Then finally — though only after it was far too late and fish stocks had already declined by 90 percent — we were able to sit down with a group of women; and perhaps unsurprisingly, these daughters, wives and sisters of the fishermen had known trouble was brewing all along. They knew the men were spending more time at sea and having to go much farther out for their catch — something the men had maybe been too proud to admit.
These women, traditionally traders and fish dryers, were able to look at the situation from a more objective and complex perspective. But because no one had engaged them to do so, we had remained blind to overfishing. Today, with the involvement and influence of women from those communities, the fish stock has increased from 8 percent to 70 percent.
Such engagement is crucial because climate change and loss of nature impacts rural and indigenous women more severely than other demographics.
Indigenous peoples make up 5 percent of the world’s population, yet they steward, manage and protect over 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity. And in the developing world, women are almost exclusively responsible for providing water and fuel for their families, accounting for 45 to 80 percent of food production, depending on the region. They are also among those most vulnerable to heat waves, floods, storms and droughts caused by climate change, as well as to the many diseases it exacerbates, like cholera, dengue and malaria. And as climate change escalates social, political and economic tensions, it makes women more vulnerable to gender-based violence, human trafficking and child marriage.
So, shouldn’t women be at the forefront of addressing these issues?
As the first woman from the Arab world to head the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), I hope my position will inspire countless young women across West Asia, North Africa and the world to play a more central role in conserving nature and biodiversity, and to seek an education in STEM. This is important, as there’s currently a global science gap — less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women. Also, my experience in the field has shown me that women apply for and receive fewer grants — only 33 percent in comparison to their male counterparts.
And it is here that the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference COP28 presents us with an opportunity to take stock of the progress we’ve made so far, and outline what’s left to be done.
COP28 will prioritize inclusion in all its efforts, but the road is still very long: The World Economic Forum predicts we’re still over a century away from achieving gender parity across the board, and the climate crisis may make this more difficult. However, as the U.N. Climate Change High-Level Champion for COP28, I have a plan, and I’m determined to leave a blueprint for those who will follow.
In my position, one of the first priorities will be to advance the Sharm El Sheikh Adaptation Agenda — the first comprehensive global plan to rally both states and non-state actors behind enhancing resilience for our planet’s 4 billion people, and ensuring this is done in a just and inclusive way.
One of our campaigns, Roof Over Our Heads, puts women’s collectives at the center of addressing access to safe and decent housing for the most vulnerable communities. Also, worldwide, there are currently 2.4 billion people who lack access to clean cooking, which results in millions of premature deaths, climate pollutants, unabated forest degradation and a continuous burden on women and children, who are typically charged with collecting fuel wood. Thus, we’ve set a shared target for governments, donors and private sector actors to urgently expand access to clean cooking through at least $10 billion in innovative finance each year.
And finally, I’m prioritizing programs like the U.N. Climate Finance Innovation Fund for Women, which will support the green transition of 10,000 women-led businesses, and help reduce the negative impact of climate change on women entrepreneurs.
The benefits of inclusion carry in every level — we know this. The representation of women in national parliaments leads countries to adopt more stringent climate policies, resulting in lower emissions. At the local level, women’s participation can lead to better resource governance and conservation outcomes. And in the private sector, higher percentages of women on corporate boards improves the disclosure of carbon emissions information.
Ultimately, climate change and biodiversity loss are a “whole-of-society” problem.
We need to empower everyone — women and men — to play a role in preserving our planet. And that means bringing together people from all walks of life — mothers, farmers, caregivers, scholars, scientists, Indigenous community members and young people — to protect our planet for present and future generations. Empowering women isn’t a zero-sum game, and it doesn’t mean disempowering others. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.
Today, and every day, we need to make sure that women’s voices are heard, included and celebrated.