(Updates throughout with adoption of decision)
DOHA (AlertNet) - U.N. climate talks have approved a "gender balance" goal that would increase women's participation in the negotiations, with experts hoping this will make climate change policy more responsive to women’s needs.
The decision - which was adopted on Saturday at the end of the fractious conference - says that the almost 200 nations involved in the talks need to make additional efforts to improve the gender balance in the many bodies under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
It also asks them "to strive for gender balance in their delegations" at the talks, known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP for short. Gender balance is not defined, but is usually understood as the aim of achieving an equal split of men and women.
"What we've now got is a decision that will bring gender right into the bodies of the COP and the decisions of the COP, and it's quite obvious that this is going to make a huge difference because women are so central to making progress on climate change," said Mary Robinson, former Irish president, former U.N. human rights commissioner and a champion of gender equality at the climate change talks.
Robinson told an event on the sidelines of the conference that she worries about the state of the world that her four grandchildren will inhabit by 2050. Women tend to think more about the implications of climate change for their families and for future generations, such as scarcer food and water supplies due to extreme weather, she added.
"We are more likely to be real about the urgency if we can make (the U.N. climate process) more people-centred and have more women at the table in all the bodies, in all the delegations, and at every level," she said.
The decision asks the U.N. climate secretariat to organise a workshop at next year's conference on boosting women's involvement in the talks. And it says progress towards gender balance should be reviewed in 2016.
Since 2010, the UNFCCC has been headed by a woman - Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, a former negotiator and civil servant, who is an expert in sustainable development and renewable energy.
And women's participation in the climate talks process seems to be growing gradually.
According to figures from the Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), the number of women at the main U.N. climate meetings last year averaged 30 percent of the total number of delegates, with women making up 16 percent of country-team heads.
For 2012, the level has increased, although data for the latest talks in Doha are not yet available. At the two meetings earlier this year, women accounted for 36 percent of negotiators, and nearly a quarter of delegation heads.
Iliya Sumana, who is the only woman in the Bangladesh negotiating team of around 20 people in Qatar, told AlertNet the number is so low for her country because she has few female colleagues who are able to attend. But a gender balance goal would provide impetus for more women to be selected, she said.
Women have a lot to contribute to climate change policy because of their everyday experience and indigenous knowledge of adapting to extreme weather and rising seas in their communities, she said.
"So if we can send more women to these negotiations and they are really mandated to speak on behalf of their country, then it will be really positive," she added.
Today, many poor women lack the means to adapt to climate change in positive ways, she noted.
On a visit to her home city of Mymensingh, some 120km north of the capital, Dhaka, she was shocked to see women labouring on construction sites in the midday sun. They told her they were working in the heat - which men refused to do - just to earn a living because drought had driven them from their homes on Bangladesh's river islands and silt embankments, known as chars.
MORE THAN NUMBERS
Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of UN Women, said women must be at the "frontline of climate change action" due to their role as managers of households and natural resources, custodians of biodiversity, and growers and producers of food.
This requires supportive laws and policies at regional and national level, as well as leadership in political decision making, she added.
"Everything on the ground has shown it's not only good for women, it's also good for the community, it's good for the country, and it's good for global society," she said.
Mariyam Shakeela, the Maldives' minister of environment and energy, said her country has set up committees to lead activities on gender and climate change, such as teaching women how to sort out waste at the household level and training them to educate their peers living on remote islands.
High-profile women at the Doha talks agreed that women must have access to more money if they are to protect themselves effectively from climate change. Some called for a specific fund for that purpose, or for earmarking a portion of finance to be channelled through the fledgling U.N. Green Climate Fund.
This chimes with concerns that the UNFCCC goal on gender balance may not be easy to implement without stepped-up resources enabling developing countries to train and send more women negotiators to the talks.
Yvette Abrahams, a researcher with Gender CC - Women for Climate Justice, South Africa, stressed the need to avoid a "tick-box" approach, adding that raising the numbers of women in the U.N. climate process will not necessarily lead to gender equality. They must also have power and authority, and ensure the views of vulnerable women are taken into account.
"What we have (here) is a gender decision that's not necessarily a feminist decision," she said. "You can't just have representation in a male world.”
For example, in South Africa, the four ministers in charge of energy policy are all women, but they have failed to move far enough away from a reliance on coal, she said.
Rashmi Mistry, an advisor on economic justice for Oxfam in South Africa, said there is still a lack of understanding within the U.N. climate talks about how women are affected by - and responding to - climate change on the ground.
Given that, adopting a decision on gender balance at the UNFCCC would be a step forward, she said.
"You've got to start somewhere,” she told AlertNet.