Gender blindness further limits Australia's climate policy

Isadora Vadasz

In the aftermath of the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, a wave of domestic violence swept through affected communities, a phenomenon which was expected to be repeated in the wake of the 2019/2020 bushfire crisis. Though the Australian Government’s climate and disaster policies may be gender blind, clearly the effects of both of these forms of crises on Australians are not. And yet, Australia’s lack of action in the field of gender and climate change signifies another missed opportunity to improve the lives of its citizens whilst promoting sustainability.

The field of gender and climate change is attracting growing attention from academics, NGOs and policy makers around the world. It begins with the premise that human interaction with the environment is highly gendered, therefore climate change and associated mitigation and adaptation policies affect people of all genders differently.

The central harms within this notion are threefold. Firstly, climate change has unquestionably begun affecting society’s most vulnerable groups, exacerbating existing wealth, gender, and race inequalities. Next, gender disparity at an institutional level has evidenced a failure of adequate representation in climate change decision making (at COP13 only 28 per cent of states’ delegates were women). Lastly, blindness to gender during project or policy formulation creates strategies which fundamentally overlook the needs and expertise of participants.

These ideas are currently being explored and addressed by actors such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) and ActionAid. The latter organisation manages a range of projects which strengthen women’s leadership in disaster preparedness in Cambodia, or harness Kenya’s food insecurity problem as a platform to improve gender equality and sustainable farming practices.

Incidental to the issue is the lost opportunity to harness climate-resilient development to yield a ‘double dividend’; contributing to the realisation of gender equality whilst gaining ground on the road to a low-emissions economy. Think of the funding of female-led organisation with a sustainability agenda, or educating women in sustainable livelihoods. WEDO, for example, supports women from the Global South to participate in international climate change decision-making. As this list shows, WEDO and other organisation have experienced significant success in this growing area.

These ideas have also been formalised internationally. A recent example came through the decision from COP 22 in 2016, which mandated “the balanced participation of women and men in the Convention process” as well as state consideration of human rights instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. This high-level formalisation provides important access points for NGOs to engage with international programs and decision making, whilst also signalling to governments that this area requires action.

The Australian Government is not completely deaf to these advancements, but incorporation seems to be occurring only in Australia’s foreign, rather than domestic, policy. Even a brief glance at DFAT’s Climate Change Strategy provides evidence of a dedication to ‘gender-responsive approaches’, strengthening the ‘perspectives and representation of women in international climate change bodies’ and ‘promoting social inclusion’. However, an examination of material of other government departments with climate change mandates elucidates nothing of the sort, even though national and international climate change policies have proven to be more effective when gender is taken into account. As per the Gender Action Plan developed at COP 25, mainstreaming gender considerations into decision making should now be a priority for all governments worldwide.

Though the gendered effects of climate change are likely to be more acute in countries where Australia focuses its humanitarian and development attention, Australians are far from immune. Apart from the increase in domestic violence associated with disasters mentioned above, one study has shown that rural Australian women’s paid and unpaid duties increase in times of climate-related stress, leading in turn to negative health impacts. However, a robust domestic literature or policy dialogue is yet to emerge which explores the gendered effects of the recent droughts, flooding and bushfires. This exacerbates the risk that Australia’s climate policies take a gender-blind approach which is ill-fitting for our diverse communities.

Mainstreaming of gender throughout government policy is necessary in order to ensure women’s voices are empowered and incorporated into projects that affect them. Gender considerations in federal policy come within the remit of the Office for Women, which made headlines recently for being excluded from consultations during plans for expanding women’s participation in sport. More effective mainstreaming would see gender considerations assimilated throughout government departments and offices, including through improving gender representation amongst parliamentarians (women make up approximately 30 per cent of State and Federal parliamentarians).

At a grassroots level, Australian women and girls’ voices abound in advocating for an effective climate change response. However, there is little evidence that this is being translated to equal representation at a higher level other than Sussan Ley holding the Environment portfolio (which from February 2020 does not include mandates for climate change adaptation or science).

Recognition of climate change as a social and environmental issue is essential for effective action and creating more equitable communities. Australian women and girls are a positive force for domestic climate action, and for the sake of both equality and sustainability, equal gender representation at all levels of government is necessary to create effective climate solutions. We have the opportunity to double the dividends from climate-resilient development, improving the lives of all Australians in the process.


Isadora Vadasz is a recent Master of Law and Development graduate from the University of Melbourne. She currently works as a Legal Researcher for the Centre for the Study of Humanitarian Law in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.