Women as Actors for Climate Adaptation in Guatemala

Advocacy @ UNA-NCA
Jan 21 · 6 min read

By Rebecca Contreras, SDG Research Lead

An indigenous Guatemalan woman examines a corn crop ravaged by the effects of climate change in her country’s Corredor Seco (Dry Corridor) region. Photo by Phil Laubner for Catholic Relief Services.

Climate change is exacerbating the conditions that create regional and global security threats — namely social, political and economic marginalization and unequal access to resources. The loss of livelihoods stemming from the increased strain on the environment will lead to competition over scarce resources, thus fueling social conflict and regional displacement which could prove destabilizing for Latin America. This is the case in Guatemala’s western highlands, where increasingly frequent natural disasters, droughts and floods have aggravated poverty and malnutrition to among the highest rates in the Western Hemisphere — factors that make this region the largest source of migration to the United States.

Climate risks have important gender dimensions that shape how men and women experience the effects of climate change. Women and girls face increased vulnerability due to lack of access to information, cultural and social norms, and reduced land tenure. However, the international community rarely considers the importance of gender norms in shaping responses to shifting weather patterns, environmental crises and climate-induced conflict. The absence of gender considerations in international responses to climate-centered security risks threatens the ability to adequately address the multidimensional challenge presented by the intersection of gender norms, climate change and insecurity. Only through the inclusion of women in climate-related peace programming will there be a possibility for the world’s most vulnerable to cope with the inevitable impacts of climate change and create sustainable peace.

Gender and Climate

Gender norms are affected by the climate — changes in livelihoods stemming from reduced access to natural resources can push men to migrate, changing traditional norms for women around economic participation and leadership. The Guatemalan Institute on Migration reported that between March and November 2020, women and girls represented 18% of deported migrants from the United States and Mexico; data from the IOM found that 25.8% of Guatemalans living in the United States are women. In rural Guatemala, men’s migration can provide an avenue for female empowerment because women assume more responsibility and decision making power in their homes and families. The absence of men propells women into the labor force, which allows them to generate income and pursue avenues for innovation and entrepreneurship that foster community-level development. This ability to interact more meaningfully with their community, enables greater autonomy and participation to shape local rural development.

Gender norms can hinder opportunities for local participation and economic opportunity of women by adding responsibilities for women without dramatically transforming community-level perceptions of their roles. Thus, it is essential to mainstream gender in climate adaptation efforts in order to capitalize on the opportunities for women’s empowerment offered by shifting gender norms in order to transform traditional conceptualizations of women’s roles. The participation of women is crucial to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and addressing the structural inequalities that force migration. Considering gender dynamics is critical to building climate-resilient communities. Processes like these have been initiated at the community level by a school led and dedicated to indigenous women in Solola.

Looking Closer: MAIA Impact

MAIA Impact, a school for low-income indigenous girls in the western highlands of Guatemala, illustrates the vital role that women and girls can play in climate adaptation and risk mitigation. In 2019, the school won the Zayed sustainability prize for their work in involving Mayan women and girls in sustainable farming practices and enacting transformational change in their communities. Their project led to the creation of an organic garden to help address chronic malnutrition in the community while also helping develop healthy eating habits. This was done through workshops to teach MAIA students and their mothers about indigenous species, preparation of soil, use of biofertilizers and on the nutritional value of crops and their uses. After visiting other organic community gardens, MAIA students designed an organic garden where they could harvest foods for their snack and lunch. Another aspect of their project prioritized students’ mothers by helping them create their own gardens for family consumption and providing workshops on how to use their plants to make shampoos, creams and other products. The community garden has helped reaffirm the confidence of mothers and has improved their autonomy, and contributed to family economies through the commercializing of their crops and goods.

This program has impacted both men and women in the community because it has opened an avenue for women to become involved in agriculture, which traditionally has been reserved for men. Additionally, it has helped create knowledge and practices to promote community-level mutual support projects and fostered avenues for income generation without intermediaries. Including women and girls in the design, decision-making, and implementation of climate adaptation projects allows for the integration of the knowledge and experiences of women that might be otherwise ignored. MAIA’s project has been particularly successful by developing confidence and team working skills that have led to a community movement. This provides an avenue for conflict prevention and sustainable peace by improving the ability for communities to prepare for potential climate risks by incorporating those who are directly impacted.

Three students within the Girls Education and Empowerment Program pose outside of MAIA Impact

In an interview about her experience representing MAIA Impact at a conference in Saudi Arabia, student Estér Bocel discussed the importance of learning about sustainability projects being carried out in different contexts in order to share knowledge and broaden networks of support for local and global climate initiatives. She highlighted the necessity of involving youth in the issues that will shape their future in order to build a collective vision. A central aspect of MAIA Impact develops leadership skills and knowledge that girls share with their families and community, through weekly mentorship sessions, peer-to-peer support networks and monthly family home visits. Additionally, students are able to participate in student government, and organized and led two reforestation projects in cooperation with the National Forest Institute and two community councils, providing students with the opportunity to put the skills they have acquired in practice, particularly towards climate action initiatives. This contributes to changing harmful local behaviors such as slash and burn practices, by promoting the use and knowledge of biofertilizers and shifts societal conceptions of women’s abilities.

A Global Context

According to a joint report between UN Women, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the UN office of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), the incorporation of gender in peace, climate and development programming leads to better adaptation and risk mitigation, which in turn produces more sustainable and equitable outcomes. Thus, in order to effectively address the security threats of climate change, it is necessary to seek gender-transformative approaches that frame women as central agents in climate-sensitive development. The holistic approach adopted by MAIA provides an important lesson to the international community — namely, that gender-sensitive climate action can contribute to creating durable peace by reducing marginalization and intergroup grievances which have been linked to conflict, while also helping communities develop adaptation strategies.

A significant body of evidence demonstrates that the participation of women in peace not only leads to an increased likelihood of attaining and implementing peace, but of increasing community support and addressing the root causes of conflict. In Guatemala, the participation of women in negotiation teams, diplomatic commissions, and civil society resulted in a broader negotiation agenda to address the root causes of the conflict:land tenure, economic opportunity, return of refugees and gender-based violence. Women also organized marches to demand progress on negotiations, led consensus-building that allowed negotiations to continue, and contributed to post conflict rebuilding through disarmament campaigns and developing strategies for the social and economic reintegration of former fighters. The presence of women in peace negotiations broadens provisions on political social and economic reform and increases the implementation rate for these provisions, which have been linked to the durability of peace.

Twenty years after the landmark United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325,which recognized the importance of women’s participation in conflict prevention, only 5 out of 75 Security Council member states recognize gender as an important factor in climate insecurity. The international community must solidify its commitment to gender-sensitive climate change, which is directly linked to global security. In the face of increasing global emissions and instability, prioritizing women’s leadership and participation in climate action provides a concrete way to multiply the impact of climate-risk programming across the globe. Failure to analyze and incorporate gender dimensions in global climate responses across sectors would be a missed opportunity for global peace and development and a disservice to the world’s most vulnerable.

UNA-NCA Snapshots

Global Goals, Local Perspectives.

UNA-NCA Snapshots

UNA-NCA Snapshots provides a platform for our community leaders, partners, members & staff to publish op-eds, reviews, and innovative research. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-NCA. Ready to write? Submit your pitch to shayna@unanca.org.

Advocacy @ UNA-NCA

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UNA-NCA Snapshots

UNA-NCA Snapshots provides a platform for our community leaders, partners, members & staff to publish op-eds, reviews, and innovative research. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-NCA. Ready to write? Submit your pitch to shayna@unanca.org.

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