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Dear U.N., Why Is It Mainly A Man's World At The Climate Conference?

Delegates attend a plenary session at the COP21 United Nations Climate Conference.
Dominique Faget
AFP/Getty Images
Delegates attend a plenary session at the COP21 United Nations Climate Conference.

Dear United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon,

"Get Cross."

"Break the silence."

"When you witness violence against women and girls, do not sit back. Act."

Those are your words, Mr. Ban Ki-moon. As the U.N. secretary general, you have been forward about promoting gender equality and denouncing violence against women. Yet this month, at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21), one of the biggest conferences in the world, where important decisions about climate change and our planet's future are being discussed and debated, very few women participated or had a chance to voice their views.

Mary Robinson, former U.N. human rights chief and first female president of Ireland, put it this way in an interview with The Guardian: "This is a very male world [at the conference]. When it is a male world, you have male priorities."

We are "cross" because men outnumbered women on all of the panels except the one on female sexual health! One of our colleagues, Dr. Lindiwe Sibanda, CEO of the Africa-wide Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, is attending the meeting as an accredited COP21 observer. She said that the representation of women in the climate change negotiations was "deplorable" as they comprised only 16 out of the 58 main figures.

We would expect, though disagree with, an over-representation of men at a normal conference, where "all male panels" are quite the norm. But to see it at a U.N. event like this one is outrageous.

Is it not a subtle form of violence against women when there is no effort to ensure women's equal representation at a conference as important as this? One that will influence policies and lives for years to come?

Women's perspectives are crucial since women often suffer the most from climate change due to their central role in families and communities. Take the example of agriculture in Africa. Eighty percent of Africa's food is produced by women. Women and girls are often disproportionately affected by economic, social and environmental shocks and stresses.

And it's not as if there is a lack of women to participate. Women already run a number of initiatives that tackle climate. FANRPAN, led by our colleague Dr. Sibanda, aims to create a "food secure Africa free from hunger and poverty." The Ghana Bamboo Bikes is training women to build and sell bamboo bicycles. In Thailand, a woman is leading the country's largest solar power company group.

To not appreciate the role of women and listen to what they have to say is a shame!

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of U.N. Women, has stated, "Achieving gender equality is about disrupting the status quo — not negotiating it."

It is disappointing that this conference was all about the status quo when it came to gender.

The U.N. campaign #HeForShe that you support looks great on paper, but until it is practiced in all arenas, including climate change conferences and negotiations, its legacy will be simply as a popular hashtag.


Elsa Marie D'Silva and Esther Ngumbi

Elsa Marie D'Silva is the co-founder and managing director of Safecity. Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama. They are both 2015 New Voices Fellows at the Aspen Institute.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elsa Marie D'Silva
Esther Ngumbi