The Law and the SDGs  |  Juliette Leoni

Can laws tackling gender inequality help to enhance disaster resilience in the Philippines?

With support from the legal community in advocating and implementing gender-sensitive approaches to climate action, rural women in the Philippines have the potential to build the resilience of their communities to the increasingly severe impacts of climate change.

Elderly woman planting rice in the Philippines. Photo: Danilo Pinzon/World Bank

Contrary to what meets the eye, climate change is far from a gender-neutral phenomenon. Women, and particularly women living in rural areas, are more vulnerable to adverse impacts of climate change. In fact, climate change tends to aggravate prevailing gender inequalities in relation to access to resources and opportunities. The Convention on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was the first human rights instrument to bring the spotlight on rural women. Article 14 is dedicated to rural women and entitles them to a right to participate in development planning at all levels. This includes a right to participate in seeking solutions to climate change, especially since rural women are disproportionately affected by climate change.

The following blog will clarify to what extent advocating for gender equality and supporting rural women’s empowerment may result in building resilience to climate change. The Philippines provides an interesting case study to illustrate how law can empower rural women for disaster risk mitigation. Despite its gender-sensitive laws, the Philippines faces challenges in terms of implementation. Drawing on interviews with a policy maker and a representative of civil society in the Philippines, this blog will assess the limits of the existing legal framework. The two interviewees include Loren Legarda, a former Senator and strong advocate for green development and women’s empowerment, who personally contributed to the adoption of gender-sensitive laws and Daryl Leyesa, the secretary general of PKKK, the National Rural Women Coalition in the Philippines.

Women bear the burden of food insecurity in times of natural disasters

The Philippines is an interesting case both because it is one of the countries at higher risk of being affected by natural disasters, and because it has consistently ranked first in Southeast Asia for its efforts in closing the gender gap. According to Legarda, approximately “13.6 million Filipinos live in coastal rural communities”. In addition to typhoons and tsunamis, the Philippines is at high risk of sea level rise, flooding and storms, which will directly affect rural communities. In this context, Filipino rural women’s vulnerability to climate change is connected to their livelihoods, as they are dependent on natural resources.

Rural Filipino women are often farmers, foresters and fishers. Agricultural crops and fish are their main source of income, as well as their main source of food. Women experience gender-differentiated impacts of climate change connected to their traditional gender roles. For instance, as women tend to be primarily in charge of water and food supply for their households, the burden of food insecurity brought on by natural disasters is predominantly placed upon rural women. Unequal access to land, credit and information also disadvantages rural women when disasters strike, exposing them to disaster induced losses related to their livelihoods.

Introducing laws to empower rural women

The Philippines has emerged as a pioneer in enacting landmark gender-sensitive laws in relation to climate change, including RA 9729, RA 7192, RA 10121, which aim to integrate gender mainstreaming in climate actions. Among these laws, the Magna Carta of Women sets out women’s right to food security, as well as women’s right to participate in decision-making processes. Furthermore, the Climate Change Act was amended to create an adaptation fund for local governments, the People’s Survival Fund. Legarda explains that to be approved for this funding, projects must be “responsive to gender-differentiated vulnerabilities”. She also notes that, since 1995, each year the government has allocated 5% of its total budget to gender and development.

The government have evidently acknowledged the need to foster gender equality in order to boost development and adapt to climate change. Yet, some gaps still remain. Leyesa refers to the lack of sex disaggregated data, vital to conduct gender-based analysis of climate change impacts. Moreover, she argues that temporary special measures to ensure grassroots women’s representation in local decision-making bodies are missing.

Despite new laws, and the Philippines Commission on Women’s efforts of monitoring their implementation, lingering stereotypes hinder the impact of gender-sensitive reforms. According to Leyesa, rural women’s contribution to national food production, such as in the fishing sector, is still largely underestimated and uncompensated. Women’s work in this sector tends to be undervalued, as they are entrusted with less respected tasks such as preparation of fish gears and fish vending. She stresses how this is mostly due to deeply embedded gender stereotypes that “no policy document can change overnight”.

Increasing women’s land ownership and agency

Gender equality should be seen as an enabler and an accelerator for all the SDGs. Reading together SDG 5 on Gender Equality and SDG 13 on Climate Action, the connection between gender equality and climate change mitigation grows clearer. Ensuring rural women’s agency, leadership and participation in the economy and in decision-making processes will benefit their climate resilience. Rural women can play a key role by participating in the design and implementation of climate change responses at the national and local level. Filipino rural women’s vulnerability to climate change should be perceived as a tool instead of a weakness. According to Legarda, “this vulnerability deepens their knowledge and skills when addressing and coping with the adverse impacts of climate change”. Rural women’s experience and gendered roles may enable them to build community resilience to climate change. As women are often in charge of food production they are well-positioned to adopt and promote climate-smart agricultural practices.

Including women and making their voices heard leads them to adopt innovative solutions with long-lasting benefits for rural communities. Securing rural women’s land rights is an important first step to enable them to make decisions that will mitigate the impacts of climate change and promote forest conservation. Facilitating women’s land ownership not only gives them agency over resource management, but also helps to ensure women’s access to finance to invest in sustainable farming practices. For example, in response to the decline in fish catch, women in Hinatuan reforested over a hundred hectares of mangrove area to protect their settlements from storms and secure alternative sources of food. Similarly, in response to droughts, farmers in the island of Oriental Negros have planted trees on their sugarcane plots to protect their crop from sun exposure and improve water retention.

The role of lawyers in promoting women as agents of change

Climate change places developmental challenges on Filipino rural women, yet, their vulnerability is also their strength. Accordingly, they should be valued as agents of change for climate mitigation. Lawyers must encourage their clients to view rural women as holders of knowledge and partners that they should work with. By leveraging their influence among corporate clients, lawyers can help to increase investment in women-led sustainable solutions to climate change that may help to build disaster resilience at the community level and improve rural women’s economic empowerment. Further to this, lawyers can also get involved in pro bono work for NGOs committed to strengthening rural women’s access to climate justice.

Although a gender-sensitive legal framework is not always sufficient to shift culturally embedded gender norms and every solution is context-specific, such laws help to pave the way for a more equal and prosperous society. It is therefore pertinent to also call for lawyers to advocate for gender equality in order to achieve the SDGs, particularly SDGs 5 and 13. Empowering rural women will enable them to be increasingly part of the solution in the fight against climate change.

Juliette Leoni