CEDAW Committee Recommends a Gender-Based Approach to Environmental Disasters

Dalia Leinarte, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) recently published a general recommendation on the adoption of a gender-based approach on the prevention of and response to climate change and environmental disasters. See Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, General Recommendation No. 37: Gender-related dimensions of disaster-risk reduction in the context of climate change, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/37, 9 February 2018. The General Recommendation provides guidance to States on fully implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in the context of climate change and disasters; under the Convention, States parties have both general obligations to ensure gender equality as well as specific obligations to guarantee rights that may be negatively affected by climate change and natural disasters. See id. at para. 10. The General Recommendation warns that pre-existing gender inequalities are aggravated following a disaster and women become more susceptible to gender-based violence, but States parties must still guarantee the rights enumerated in the Convention. See id. at paras. 3, 10. The General Recommendation is one of several recent developments on international standards at the intersection of human rights and the environment; notably the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment recently called for the recognition of the right to a healthy environment at the universal level, and published guidance on children’s rights and the environment. [OHCHR Press Release]

General Recommendation No. 37

The General Recommendation acknowledges the negative effects of climate change on women’s rights; discusses the broader principles of equality, participation, and access to justice enshrined in CEDAW that States must respect; states measures States should take with regard to four specific obligations States have under CEDAW; and highlights several rights under CEDAW that are likely implicated by climate change and that States are obligated to protect. Women and girls, the General Recommendation notes, often face inequalities in access to resources in several sectors, such as education and health, and disasters induced by climate change are likely to exacerbate those pre-existing inequalities. See id. at para. 3. Vulnerability to the effects of disaster are heightened for women and girls with disabilities, women living in poverty, migrants, and minorities, among others. See id. at para. 2.

States parties to CEDAW are obligated to ensure the principles of gender equality and non-discrimination, participation and empowerment, and accountability and access to justice. See id. at para. 26. Article 2 of CEDAW guarantees the rights to equality and non-discrimination, which provides that States must “take targeted and concrete measures to guarantee equality between women and men,” including adopting policy and legislative measures prohibiting discrimination or controlling for it. See id. at para. 28. The General Recommendation states that this requires States to take measures to redress direct and indirect discrimination as well as intersecting forms of discrimination. See id. at para. 30.

Women’s participation in leadership roles at all levels of government, and as local leaders, is instrumental to disaster prevention and response, according to the General Recommendation. See id. at para. 32. Pursuant to articles 7 and 8 of CEDAW, States must ensure that women are involved in leadership roles at all levels of government, both domestically and internationally, which, the General Recommendation notes, includes leadership roles in developing and implementing policies on climate change and disaster risk reduction. See id. at para. 35.

The General Recommendation further highlights the importance of rural women’s experience with “adaptation and response strategies” used in observing and responding to climate change, such as changing crop selection and managing water resources. See id. at paras. 33-34. Article 14 of CEDAW requires States to eliminate discrimination against rural women and ensures their right to participate in implementation of development planning, including in the climate change context. The CEDAW Committee advises that States should develop leadership programs, and allocate resources to train, build skills, and enhance women’s leadership. See id. at para. 36.

Article 15 of CEDAW protects women’s right to “equality before the law,” indicating that women should be treated as having the same legal capacity as men, and have equal ability to access justice. See id. at para. 37. In the context of climate change and disaster, the General Recommendation notes, women may have difficulty in securing compensation and other remedies for their loss. The General Recommendation recommends that States adopt certain measures to ensure access to justice, including raising awareness of legal tools, access to legal services, and “flexible and accessible legal and judicial mechanisms.” See id. at para. 38.

The General Recommendation describes specific measures related to data, policy coordination, non-State actors, and capacity building that States should adopt when responding to climate change and natural disasters. Recognizing the lack of data on the effects of climate change and disaster on specific demographics, the General Recommendation calls on States to establish a system for assessment and data collection, which is essential for developing strategies to respond to effects of climate change on specific demographics. See id. at paras. 39-40.

Policy coordination between the levels of government as well as across sectors needs to be strengthened by incorporating a gender approach, the General Recommendation comments; recommendations to that end include a “gender audit” of existing policy and programs as well as “gender impact assessments.” See id. at paras. 41-42. States have extraterritorial obligations to ensure the rights enumerated in CEDAW, so in the context of climate change and disaster mitigation, coordination must also occur internationally; resources should be shared and allocated towards gender-responsive plans of action. See id. at paras. 43-46.

States have a duty to regulate non-State actors’ activities so as not to discrimination against women when the actor is within the State even if operating extraterritorially. See id. at paras. 49, 51. Additionally the General Recommendation states that States should recommend that businesses in the private sector encourage women’s involvement in business, and support investment in gender responsive programs. See id. at para. 51.

States have a responsibility to increase the capacity of women to engage in development of gender-responsive approaches to disaster risk and climate assessments, and to provide access to technology that will support women’s ability to engage in those measures. See id. at paras. 52-54.

The General Recommendation highlights the rights to be free from gender-based violence, to education, to work, to health, to an adequate standard of living, and to freedom of movement as implicated by climate change and disaster and makes recommendations on addressing each. The General Recommendation suggests addressing the underlying causes of gender-based violence, monitoring, and providing training to authorities as well as supportive mechanisms for women to report violence. See id. at para. 57. It also recommends that States include climate change and information on disasters in the education curriculum and to have programs to support women’s education. See id. at para. 60.

The General Recommendation states that States should address workplace infrastructure. See id. at para. 64. In addition, the General Recommendation continues, States should provide for more social services aimed at reducing economic inequalities across gender; guaranteed employment opportunities; and burden of care redistribution, since women are primarily tasked with unpaid domestic care work. See id. at para. 64. The right to health should also be “disaster resilient,” and States should ensure that health services are gender-informed, especially in the context of reproductive healthcare. See id. at para. 68.

States must also preserve the right to an adequate living through ensuring access to food, water, sanitation, housing, and resources. See id. at para. 72. Finally, recognizing that disasters and climate change may be driving factors for migration, women migrants should be included in the decision-making on where they relocate. See id. at 78. Officials who are receiving migrants should be trained on the special risks that women face as migrants. See id. at 78.

Recent Developments on Human Rights and the Environment

The Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment recently issued a report on the ways by which environmental harms threaten children’s rights and provides guidance on protective measures that States should take to preserve those rights, mirroring many of the CEDAW Committee’s recommendations to ensure the rights of women, including the provision of education, collection of data and information, access to justice, and children’s participation in decision-making. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, UN Doc. A/HRC/37/58, 24 January 2018, para. 71.

While the Special Rapporteur also recently issued a statement calling for the recognition of the right to a healthy environment at the universal level, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) recognized that right in a recent advisory opinion. [OHCHR Press Release] See I/A Court H.R., The Environment and Human Rights, Advisory Opinion OC-23/17, 15 November 2017 [Spanish only]. The IACtHR’s opinion noted that States’ obligation to ensure the right to a healthy environment extend beyond territorial boundaries in some cases, and that those obligations are determined by the rights to life and personal integrity. The obligation to uphold the right includes preventing significant environmental damage; preventing serious and irreversible environmental damage, even where there isn’t scientific certainty; ensuring good faith cooperation among States; guaranteeing access to information on environmental effects; providing for public participation in decision-making; and guaranteeing access to justice. [IACtHR Press Release]

Background on the CEDAW Committee

The CEDAW Committee is made up of 23 independent experts who are tasked with monitoring States parties’ implementation of CEDAW. To monitor implementation, the CEDAW Committee considers States Parties’ reports, and accepts communications from individuals or groups on alleged violations as well initiates inquiries of violations at its own initiative. States parties periodically report to the CEDAW Committee; the reports are considered during CEDAW Committee sessions, and the CEDAW Committee will make recommendations. See CEDAW Committee, Introduction. To date, 189 countries are States parties to CEDAW. See OHCHR, Status of Ratification Interactive Dashboard.

Additional Information

For more information on the CEDAW Committee,  women’s rights, and other UN human rights treaty bodies, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. To stay up-to-date on international human rights law news, visit IJRC’s News Room or subscribe to the IJRC Daily.

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