Nepalese girls carrying firewood
Nepalese young women

Why is gender equality and women’s empowerment important for “saving the planet”?

My one-liner is this: If you want to scale up and speed up progress on any development agenda you have to unleash the power of women’s potential. When women can freely decide how many children they want, family sizes adjust more quickly to available resources. Rural and indigenous women are particularly knowledgeable about protecting biodiversity and combatting climate change because they do seed selection, manage forests, and make decisions about household energy use. This isn’t just about human rights principles—it is getting practical results from applying them to solve global problems.

The flip side is that gender inequality puts brakes on progress, particularly on poverty reduction. They are the main decision-makers and workers related to water use, but are poorly represented in water management. Women are critical in rebuilding communities after natural disasters, but more women than men die during those tragic times. Women produce the majority of the world’s food but own less than 11% of the land. Imagine the hurdles they have to face in post-conflict situations to rebuild their farms. All that adds up to this conclusion: gender inequality is bad economics and bad governance.

2. Do you think the UN has done enough about women’s empowerment and the environment?

Let us be realistic. The UN acts when pushed to do so. So the answer is—no—but that means we have to try harder. At the first UN world conference on environment held in Rio in 1992, gender issues barely surfaced in the mainstream negotiations that focused more on forests and trade than on people. This changed when a small group of women’s organizations, including the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) successfully lobbied for an “Agenda 21” that would take gender inequality seriously as an environment issue. Twenty years later, the UN Environment Programme declared a “gender day” during the Conference of the Parties meetings negotiating the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Global Compact gender team has also succeeded in having more than 600 CEOs of companies sign onto its seven Women Empowerment Principles.  These could easily be “token” gestures, but if we use them well, they can actually help change what happens on the ground.

3. What do you think the women’s movement should do in 2015—the anniversary year of the UN Fourth UN World Conference on Women?

The women’s movement needs to make sure that the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) works side by side with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)—the BPfA as a policy guide and CEDAW to give it teeth as a legally binding instrument. An example: The CEDAW Committee took a strong position that  “All stakeholders should ensure that climate change and disaster risk reduction measures are gender responsive, sensitive to indigenous knowledge systems and respect human rights. Women’s right to participate at all levels of decision-making must be guaranteed in climate change policies and programmes.” That statement carries the weight of a judge’s concluding remarks and provides a good legal standard of accountability.

4. What can governments do that would make a difference in the future?

Luckily, some governments– Korea, Iceland, South Africa and Brazil, for example– recognize that 2015 can be the jumpstart year to mobilize the women’s constituency for a sustainable development agenda. Beijing+20 is an opportunity to connect the dots between governments, the UN and many social movements. Diversity politics also gives plenty of room for men who are heads of state, ministers and mayors to champion the rights of women and girls.  We need to give them a “voice” while protecting our political space.

5. The UN doesn’t have its own army and it is pretty cash-strapped. What can it achieve that governments can’t?

The UN has one thing few governments have—moral authority. Historically, it has set very high standards of national as well as international governance; it has stood for equality, development and peace for all. It is probably the most democratic world institution I know because every country –big and small—has one vote. And although there are many flaws in its internal workings, nothing compares with its ability to bring hope when the world is in despair. Why else do you think the international women’s movement pays attention to the UN?

Click here to see Soon-Young’s interview at the UN FCCC meeting.

Do you have a question for me? Please email