Q&A: Women are driving the change we need

Fatima Denton describes how women's voices are becoming more prominent in policy circles but why more work is needed for this change to make a real difference to women on the ground.

Article, 08 March 2018
Outstanding women in development
A series of blogs and interviews that reflect on the role, influence and impact of women in the field of sustainable development

Head and shoulders photo of Fatima DentonFatima Denton is director of the Special Initiatives Division at the UN Economic Commission for Africa. In this interview, she describes a shifting policy landscape where women's voices are becoming more prominent; but explains why more work is needed if women are to see real change in their everyday lives.

Are you seeing a movement towards more equal participation from women? Are women's voices loud enough in the policies spaces that will advance sustainable development?

FD: I think we've seen some real progress in terms of women's voices being amplified; it certainly seems to me – even from the point of view of an observer – that we're beginning to hear more women's voices emerge.

And importantly, that's on issues where for women, being highly exposed, the stakes are increasingly high – issues such as climate change, health, sanitation, education and security.

In Africa, making the water-energy-food nexus work for women is paramount, whether for meeting primary or more strategic needs – primary, in the sense of women achieving their own basic needs in relation to food and water security, and strategic where women have enough food, water and energy to pursue their own sustainable development, perhaps through entrepreneurial activity, or to support sustainable livelihoods of their families and of those within their communities.

To really achieve the mantra at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to leave no one behind, means challenging the social barriers that perpetuate inequality and exclusion. Through this, the areas where women have been short-changed for such a long time and the issues where women have been largely invisible are really starting to come out.

The 'feminisation of poverty' construct – that a disproportionate percentage of the world's poor are women, that women are underpaid, undervalued and more likely to be in precarious employment, or that women are less likely to have access to land, credit and education – has gained real traction within international policy discourse.

It's very pleasing, to me personally, that spaces such as the UNFCCC are taking the issue of gender seriously. There has been a step change that recognises that, for too long, women have been left out of climate-related planning, policymaking and implementation. 

When I began working in the area of climate change 20 years ago, very few people were talking about gender. I recalled writing one of the first articles on 'Gendered Impacts of Climate Change' in 2001 for Energia News, and my colleagues at the time thought that I was overstating the case and that women and men are impacted equally by climate impacts. 

In Tanzania, former artisanal mining licensees Mwanahamisi Mzalendo and Mwanamkasi Rasi are among entreprenurial women who have pooled their resources to create a quarrying business. They control the day-to-day running of the quarry, including supervising labourers, dealing with the local authorities, and taking care of the site's environmental footprint (Photo: Magali Rochat/IIED)

It would have been considered very much a 'soft' issue, firmly in the social realm; no one was connecting how the invaluable body of knowledge and expertise that women have, could be harnessed to drive climate action or push forward sustainable practices – whether at household level, community level or beyond.

So, yes, it's taken some time. But it's very pleasing to see the UNFCCC building a strong network, with good champions and good ambassadors who are talking about these issues. Women's voices are being heard in the right format and in the relevant forums – whether that's at the World Economic Forum, the UN climate change talks or in the big regional conferences on sustainable development.

This all sounds promising. Do you see any challenges? 

FD: The SDGs are common to us all – that most countries are signed up shows we are all talking the same language. And there are good models and frameworks in place to measure progress towards the goals and related targets. These give us a roadmap for where we're going and a compass for how to get there.

But translating what's being called for in these international policy areas into concrete change on the ground is where the real challenge lies; it's about making these aspirations operational.

I recently attended a conference about the interlinkages between the different SDGs. If you look at the issues captured by the goals – such as food security, poverty, economic development, climate change, and health – they all intersect and they all have implications for women.

So, taking the example of Goal 2 around achieving food security and promoting sustainable agriculture – and going back to my point about primary and strategic needs – collectively we need to work out practical ways to make food systems support women, that enable women to sustain themselves, where they are not spending long hours trying to process food, and collecting wood or sourcing water for cooking.

A woman in North Dafur uses a water roller. The mobile rollers, with a large drum capacity, help save time spent on daily water collecting and carrying it long distances (Photo: UNAMID, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

And we need food systems that will support the growing entrepreneurship among women that we see on the rise in Africa – smarter, more innovative food systems that will enable the ambitions of women to flourish.

Turning the bold ambition of the SDGs into change on the ground is something we still need to resolve. That's where the international policy discussions need to go now.

And how can we get that change? 

FD: I think the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) are going to be a useful tool for measuring how well the SDGs are taking root. 
Of the 48 countries who will present their VNRs at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) later this year, 11 are African countries. It will be useful to see what's being achieved nationally and from there start aggregating data to build up a picture at scale, to get an idea of what would work regionally.

So, taking SDG 7 on energy, we'll be able look at national progress and then start thinking about how to influence regional policies on energy. The same could work for food systems, or trade infrastructure and so on.

In May, UNECA will bring together all 54 African countries to review and assess progress on the SDGs, the outcomes of which will feed into global progress being discussed at the HLPF. With much stronger participation in these national and regional policy forums, women are well positioned to bring their ideas and spearhead solutions for achieving the goals.

We're yet to see the tangible change we need. But it seems to me that we are collectively taking the right steps to deliver fairer, more sustainable lives for women and girls everywhere.

Interview conducted by Teresa Corcoran, communications content officer, IIED's Communications Group. Fatima Denton is also a member of IIED's Board of Trustees and delivered the 2014 Barbara Ward Lecture, when she called for a "new paradigm" for African development.