Building an Information Bridge to Gender Equality

Building an Information Bridge to Gender Equality

by Rebecca Pearl-Martinez

Imagine you are an engineer tasked with building a bridge. On your first day on the job you are handed a blueprint, but discover that a critical tool is missing to carry out the work effectively. This is the conundrum faced by the gender and environment field. The blueprint is in place in the form of numerous international agreements to address gender inequalities in environmental and sustainable development arenas. But an important tool to address women’s and men’s relationship to the environment—sex-disaggregated data and information—is virtually nonexistent. Not having this information makes it difficult to implement these agreements to address gender inequality.

Why is this missing information a problem? Without a full picture of the relationship that women and men have to biodiversity, agriculture, water, energy, and other resources, it is impossible to design effective solutions. More comprehensive information shines a light on what individuals and communities value most. It enhances environmental policies and programming, and targets resources more effectively. In the absence of this information, initiatives meant to tackle poverty or protect environmental resources could end up not meeting their goals, and possibly having negative impacts.

Tackling the invisibility of gender in the environmental arena is a driving force behind the creation of the Global Gender and Environment Outlook (GGEO). Through the GGEO, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) took stock of global quantitative and qualitative information at the intersection of gender and environment. Compiling this information into one resource for the first time provides an important baseline for the Sustainable Development Goals, and will aid in UNEP’s environmental assessment processes.

What data did we find on gender and environment? As outlined below, a limited number of datasets that cover many countries, numerous studies focused on one country or small geographic area, and overall a concerning lack of information about this field.

There are a group of multi-country datasets at the intersection of gender and environment collected by multilateral institutions. Datasets (outlined in greater detail below) were identified in the areas of agriculture, land, water and sanitation, air pollution, and environmental decision making and education.

The most prevalent sex-disaggregated data exist in the area of agriculture and food security. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provides data on the number of women working in agriculture, hunting, fishing, or forestry. The International Labor Organization (ILO) collects data on how many women and men are agricultural employees. World Health Organization (WHO) data looks at anaemia among pregnant women, which is often used to measure food security.

In the related area of access to land and other assets, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) uses a three-point ranking system to communicate whether national law guarantees women and men the same rights. FAO also provides data on female agricultural holders and women’s legal property and inheritance rights.

Information on access to improved drinking water and sanitation in households headed by women and men, as well as water collection roles and time burdens, is available through WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) also provides information on water collection and time burdens,deaths associated with unsafe water and sanitation, and water-related extreme climate events. Meanwhile, one of the most relevant datasets at the nexus of gender, environment, and health, provided by WHO, looks at the spread of disease due toindoor and outdoor air pollution.

Finally, among the larger datasets, women’s participation has been analyzed in environmental decision making and education. FAO compiles data on female staff in public forest institutions, and on female graduates in forestry education. Similarly, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) looks at female graduates in science, agriculture, engineering, manufacturing, and construction.

These existing datasets are valuable in their potential to provide a window into progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Here are some examples of SDG targets under their respective goals that incorporate gendered aspects of environmental issues:

  • No Poverty (Goal 1)—men’s and women’s equal rights to ownership and control over land and natural resources.
  • Zero Hunger (Goal 2)—double the agricultural productivity and incomes of women.
  • Good Health and Well-Being (Goal 3)—reduce the number of deaths and illness from hazardous chemicals, and air, water, and soil pollution.
  • Quality Education (Goal 4)—equal access for women and men to quality education.
  • Gender Equality (Goal 5)—women’s equal opportunities for participation and leadership.  
  • Clean Water and Sanitation (Goal 6)—equitable access to sanitation and hygiene for women and girls.
  • Decent Work and Economic Growth (Goal 8)—productive employment and decent work for women and men.
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities (Goal 11)—expanding sustainable transport systems with special attention to women.
  • Climate Action (Goal 13)—raising capacity for climate change planning with a focus on women.

While multi-country datasets such as those noted above are critical for a broader view, smaller data analysis efforts, which are more limited in geographic scope, often provide more nuanced information. The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index, for example, measured women’s engagement in decisions about agricultural production, community leadership, and time use. In the water arena, a gender-disaggregated analysis of irrigation uptake in Ghana and Zambia was conducted based on household surveys and census data. In the energy arena, a study addressed women’s workforce participation in energy utilities in multiple regions. In forestry, one analysis looked at the factors that determined women’s participation in forestry institutions and the effect that this participation had on conflict and fairness. In coastal zone management, a researcher examined the involvement of women in artisanal fisheries in Oman. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg—there are many more featured in the GGEO.

Although these pieces of data and analysis of different shapes and sizes are a positive start, they represent only a thin slice of the information needed to offer a comprehensive picture. Entire environmental arenas—including climate change and disasters, forestry, energy, fisheries, and the green economy—have extremely limited sex-disaggregated information. For instance, at the global level as well as in most countries, we don’t have data about how women and men are impacted by extreme weather events linked to climate change, the number of women and men who are surviving on forest resources, the number of women and men involved in energy decision-making through their jobs or as consumers, or the small businesses that women and men entrepreneurs have developed that could be scaled up to address environmental concerns.

The implications of this deficient data collection are significant because governments set policies and track progress based on what is known about their populations, just as multilateral agencies such as UNEP support programs that are meant to be evidence-based and foster accountability. When evidence isn’t available, initiatives from both the government and non-government sectors are less likely to achieve their desired outcomes. As the European Commission has noted, “Policy decisions that appear gender neutral may have a differential impact on women and men, even when such an effect was neither intended nor envisaged.” Not knowing enough about the relationship of women and men to environmental resources makes it impossible for environmental policies and programs to prevent discrimination.

Given these knowledge gaps, the arrival of a tool that weaves together available information and creates a picture of the gendered nature of environmental issues is a noteworthy achievement. The GGEO will inform UNEP’s broader environmental assessment, the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO)—both assessments were launched earlier this year at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi. Compiling what we do know about gender and environment into one resource will provide a critical baseline, bring visibility to an often invisible topic, and drive decisions that enhance environmental management alongside women’s empowerment. Decades from now, we hope the GGEO will have ushered in a new era of equality between women and men in environmental decision making.

Image "NP 2DU colombia 43_lo" Courtesy CIAT (Neil Palmer) / CC BY-SA 2.0

About the Author

Rebecca Pearl-Martinez is Research Fellow and Head of the Renewable Equity Project at the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy (CIERP) at The Fletcher School. The Renewable Equity Project (REP) explores the impact of women’s advancement on the clean energy economy. Rebecca also consults on a variety of international projects, including with United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Power Africa. Rebecca led a global consultation process and authored the USAID white paper Women at the Forefront of the Clean Energy Future, and developed a global composite index on gender and environment that was nominated for a Katerva Award. As consultant to UNDP, Rebecca co-founded and led the Global Gender and Climate Alliance, an initiative of UN agencies and civil society to advance gender equality in international climate change negotiations. She also served as the Senior Researcher for Climate Change at Oxfam America and led the global Women’s Major Group process for the 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development.

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