Wetlands, Gender Equality & Climate Change - A Podcast with Martha Rojas of the Ramsar Convention

In this podcast, recent IGC Alumni, Martha Rojas Urrego, Former Secretary General of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, looks at the intersection of wetlands, women’s rights and gender equality. With 87% of wetlands already lost on our planet, listen in to how this alarming figure has a profound impact on all people and the planet and how women are key agents for suitable solutions.

INTGenderChampions · Wetlands, Gender Equality & Climate Change - A Podcast with Martha Rojas of the Ramsar Convention

Pauline Mukanza:

Hello, I'm Pauline Mukanza from the International Gender Champions Secretariat in Geneva.

Today, I'm delighted to speak to a recent Alumna of the IGC, whose mandate ended recently in August but her passion to further gender equality and women's rights lives on. It's a great pleasure to speak with former Secretary General of the Convention on Wetlands Martha Rojas Urrego.

The Convention on Wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. The convention itself - the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands - provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation to achieve sustainable development worldwide.

Former Secretary General Martha and her team helped steer this ship towards sustainable waters, with almost 90% of UN member states who have become "Contracting Parties". Welcome, Martha. And thank you so much for taking the time to record this podcast with us today.

Martha Rojas Urrego:

Thank you, Pauline. It's a real pleasure to share this with you and with the network. Great.

Pauline Mukanza:

Let's start with the basic premises - the Convention on Wetlands - Women's Rights and Gender Equality. I was wondering if you could please tell us what you see as important linkages with these areas? And how do they interact with each other?

Martha Rojas Urrego:

Yes, absolutely. These three areas are very, very closely related.

I would start perhaps by explaining very briefly what are wetlands, because this is the subject of the Convention but not everybody knows what wetlands are. These are the water-related ecosystems, and they include both freshwater ecosystems and marine and coastal ecosystems. These include rivers, lakes, swamps, marshes, peatlands, but also mangroves and coral reefs. So it's all the ecosystems that are related to water. And the Convention, as you said, has quite a big membership. The Convention has 172 Contracting Parties who are committed to conserving and using sustainably or wisely these ecosystems.

So how do they connect then with gender equality and women's rights? Well, they connect in different ways.

The first one is that women and men have different roles when it comes to managing and conserving these important ecosystems. Perhaps the most compelling example is water. So as I mentioned, these are the sources of water. And, as we know, the role of women and girls in terms of management of water, in terms of collection of water is very important. They also fish. In many parts of the world, they collect resources from coastal ecosystems, such as snails and molluscs. They also use fibres, while men, for example, could be more focused on fishing beyond the lake and far away from the coast. So there are different roles between men and women when it comes to these ecosystems.

The second relationship is how women and men are affected differently when these ecosystems are degraded. And I have to say that it's not very well known that these are the most threatened ecosystems today, because we have lost 87% of the world's wetlands. And we are losing wetlands three times faster than forests. The impacts of this loss affect differently women and men. Just to continue with the example of water, when these ecosystems disappear or are reduced, women and girls have to walk even longer distances to fetch water, and they lose opportunities for education for economic activities. And thus, this contributes to worsening the situation and inequalities.

The third link between these three dimensions relates to gender inequalities, like, for example, access to education, access to finances and access to resources. When there are differences and inequalities in these types of conditions, then this affects how these ecosystems are managed. We can see that, for example, on projects or investments that have not taken into account these differences. We know that if, in the community, women are more engaged in fisheries, if they are not part of decision-making, then the project is not going to include them, is not going to include their knowledge, is not going to engage them as solutions and thus the project will not have the same type of returns.

So, gender inequality which underlies the management of natural resources also has an impact in terms of the outcomes of conservation and sustainable use efforts. Thus, it makes sense to link these three dimensions and to mainstream gender when it comes to managing natural resources such as wetlands. And it's important that in all actions, a human rights, a women's rights approach is taken and gender-responsive measures are taken, so that in designing projects, investments and policies, we can have positive returns, that do enhance the conservation of the ecosystems, but that also enhance gender equality and contribute to addressing the barriers that we have in terms of gender and women's rights.

In that respect, I would finish by saying that in the context of the Convention, Parties became aware of the importance of including gender and in 2018, in the Conference of the Parties that was held in Dubai - it was the 13th Conference of the Parties - they adopted, for the first time, a Resolution that calls on actions by all the Parties and the Secretariat to mainstream and to consider gender in all the work that they do to implement the convention. As a result, we developed guidelines with case studies that show what are practical ways in which gender can be mainstreamed to achieve all these positive outcomes.

Pauline Mukanza:

Insightful answer, where you really outline the linkages between the Convention on Wetlands, women's rights and gender equality.

Women are particularly prone to climate change because they depend highly on many of society's local natural resources for their livelihood - like you mentioned water. Many examples show how women are the most affected group. By definition, women are crucial players, agents of change and accelerators in dealing with different aspects of climate change.

So now I'm going to turn to a second question. And I was wondering if you can please share a personal example where you have been up close to see the effects of bringing women to the decision-making table in order to address the issue of climate change?

Martha Rojas Urrego:

Yes, I was very fortunate to be part of a group of women who worked in the first stages of getting gender into the Climate Change Convention. This was in 2015, so it was before Copenhagen. There was a very interesting initiative from some Nordic countries to fund women's participation in the national delegations. It was called the Women's Delegates Fund. It was very interesting, because before that, delegations from countries were mostly made up of men. With this fund, it was possible for countries, especially developing countries, to bring women as part of the delegations. That was a very important ingredient in terms of the whole strategy to try to get gender into the decision text. From that effort, and, of course, all the work of many people including the GGCA - which was the Global Gender and Climate Alliance, it was possible to get the positive results that we know today, including the first Gender Action Plan in 2017, and then the Lima work programme. So, this was a deliberate effort to bring women to the table, and that helped to get this positive outcome.

But, if I may, I would like to mention not only works at the international level, but also at the very local level, from my work on climate change, but also on wetlands, which are very closely related with climate change. Wetlands are the most effective carbon stores. Mangroves, or peatlands, accumulate more carbon than all the forests in the world because of their soil, which is very rich in carbon. They also protect the coasts: mangroves protect coasts from extreme weather events, or, inland, they help to avoid flooding and droughts. So, with this key role that wetlands play in climate change, I would like to mention some specific examples, in which the engagement of women has been crucial and has become more and more used, which is the restoration of mangroves.

It's very interesting because all these efforts started because of the differentiated roles of women and men in managing these ecosystems. In Senegal, Guinea and in Latin America, men fish outside of the coasts, and women are very closely related to the mangrove in terms of, for example, collecting molluscs for income and for subsistence.

There is a very nice example in Costa Rica, in the Isla Chira, where women started by this close connection that they had with the collection of molluscs. They started to see that they could also collect propagules of mangroves to create nurseries and then start reforestation. So that was supported. And through their participation, they became more engaged than men because this was where they were working, where they were living, in terms of restoration of mangroves, with benefits for the ecosystem, with benefits for their livelihoods, with benefits for their empowerment, because they started to be more engaged in activities such as tourism, they developed oyster aquaculture.

So it's a very nice example of how, by recognizing the differentiated roles, by providing explicit engagement and participation in decision-making, you see the type of positive outcomes in terms of the conservation of the ecosystem, but also in terms of empowerment, and in terms of gender equality and women's rights.

Pauline Mukanza:

Wow, what an insightful answer there. Thank you so much for sharing that example, with women's participation in delegations, an example of the importance of bringing women to the table and at the international and multilateral level, but also an example from the local level, with the restoration of mangroves, and really looking at the gender differences of how women and men manage these things differently. Really insightful, I'm learning a lot when it comes to biology as well there, so thank you very much.

As an International Gender Champion, who's now an Alumna, I want to take a moment to look back at your personal commitment, which is to: "Adopt measures that promote an inclusive and enabling working environment in the Secretariat, including flexible work arrangements, that support both men and women to achieve work-life balance, professional growth and well being".

I was just wondering if you could please tell the listeners, what this means to you and what this looks like for you, in practical terms. And if you have any advice for fellow champions on what they could do to follow suit?

Martha Rojas Urrego:

Thank you. Thank you, and it's been a pleasure to be part of the Gender Champions. And as other Champions, of course, I had a commitment in terms of the substance of the work and that related very much in terms of these policy developments in the context of the Convention, but also internally, in terms of how to manage the team.

How this commitment was actually implemented in practice was very much focused in terms of providing flexible work arrangements for the staff, and I started doing this before the pandemic. What it meant in practice was that some colleagues, some members of my team preferred to work part-time. Interestingly, it was mostly women who had children and wanted to have time to be with their children. But there was also the possibility to work from home: we had a policy by which it was possible, but it was more of an exception before the pandemic.

What happened with the pandemic, which I'm sure was shared by many other managers, is that we had to actually learn to work from home. And this wasn't an exception to the rule. It was interesting to see, afterwards, how we started to get the team back to the office. Through the many tools that were developed, that allowed people to work from home on a more regular basis, to be connected - with all these means that we know virtuality became a norm. That changed the way that we approach coming back to the office, because then what I did was to provide the opportunity to everybody to work from home. We established a number of days per week. We also did a survey because there is a lot of literature on what working from home also meant in terms of gender equality.

What we saw is that it became very difficult for many women, even if it sounded nice, to be working from home, as they had an incredible increase of home activities, in terms of taking care of the house and taking care of the children. So what I did was to make this optional: they could work more from the office if they wished. Some of them found that for them, it was easier to go to the office because then they could be focused on working, and not taking care of what was happening in their space.

Perhaps the learning from this experience was that it's important to provide the possibility and the options, but it's also important also to have a balance, to ensure that people can choose where working is more convenient. That allows them to fulfil their expectations professionally and also in terms of the home-work balance.

The other thing that we did was having a lot of discussions with my staff focused on well-being. We did this specific training to look at what wellbeing after the pandemic meant, what were the best conditions to work from home, and the importance of teamwork. At the end, we decided to have two days where everybody would come to the office - because the team spirit came out as being very important and that could only happen if people met physically in the office. So, we came up with a model that allowed you the possibility - it was voluntary - for everybody to be some time in the office, but then gave the liberty to people to choose what worked better for them within the context of a limited number of days.

Perhaps the lesson from that is the importance to provide these opportunities, to provide balance between home office and the need for teamwork, but also to take into account the possible implications of working from home which not always result in better equality, especially from a gender perspective.

Pauline Mukanza:

Indeed, thank you so much for coming back to that keyword of balance, to provide for different needs, whether people prefer working from home or in the office, and the importance of fostering well-being in the post-pandemic time that we're moving into.

So, Martha, former Secretary General of the Convention on Wetlands, we really see your commitment to the substance of the work and your true leadership for gender equality. Thank you so much for acting as a Champion of this network. We wish you all the best and we also wish to still work with you and keep in touch. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today, for sharing your insights on the importance of wetlands, gender equality and women's rights.

Martha Rojas Urrego:

Thank you. It was a pleasure.