The gendered politics of COP23 toilets

Chui-Ling Tam's picture

[This post is part of a series offered by IECA members attending COP23 Fiji in Bonn.]

I see suits. After 11 days and 25 side events, visions of a sea of men in dark suits and short back and sides are swimming before my eyes. Even as I sit at the Indonesia pavilion facing the palm trees and thatch huts of the Fiji pavilion, with men in batik shirts and women with frangipani-adorned hair strolling past me, the overwhelming impression is of men in suits.

It’s not just me. Mary Robinson remarked on it too. The past Irish president and past UN Commissioner for Human Rights, now busy with the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, declared during a Climate Action Studio interview that it was nice to see women outnumber the men for a change. Robinson was one of four speakers, two men and two women, but the gender re-balance occurred courtesy of the 15-year-old girl conducting the interview. A few days earlier, the equally eloquent Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati and tireless climate warrior, told a worshipful room that Kiribati would disappear, but its people had plenty of time if we work on pre-emptive responses and training to prepare them for eventual climate-induced migration. The Kiribati diaspora would shine in new worlds, he said, and then he singled out a female compatriot and declared there was nothing to stop a beautiful Kiribati woman from becoming the prime minister of Australia.

Banter aside, the place of women at UNFCCC is a microcosm of their place in the world. Tuesday the 14th was the 6th anniversary of Gender Day at COP, a day to celebrate women’s engagement in the UNFCCC process, to make space for non-masculine voices. The day was filled with side events that largely focused on the disproportionate harm that women face in a changing climate, as well as innovative responses. It was a day to spur world leaders to consider gender-informed strategies and policies to deal with the severe threats posed by climate change. It was about knowledge and empathy for women’s lived experience as they carry the triple burden of work in compromised environments.

It is also the 10th anniversary of an exchange at COP13 in Bali between a determined female Oxfam delegate and a UNFCCC official who effectively told her that women did not need their own meeting space at COP because they did not belong in such a high-level technical environment. UNFCCC has evolved since then, and women are an ever-growing force at the annual COPs, lending their voices to climate change governance to account for the immediate experience of women on the ground. They waited a long time to arrive, and that arrival is a constant work in progress.

It is, then, rather ironic that amid the slick planning that went into providing green transport to shuttle the delegates around COP23, the water stations to fill the de riguer COP23 water bottles, the locally grown food in the COP23 canteen where we are reminded vegetarian lifestyles are more climate-friendly, the sight of women waiting to go to the COP23 toilet is all too familiar.

Spatial equality is not spatial equity, and while women wait in queues half a dozen deep to relieve themselves in the stolen moments between meetings, the men’s washroom is blissfully uncluttered. Safe, healthful access to toilets is a global issue, and women are particularly at risk, a point recognized at World Toilet Day, a United Nations initiative declared on Nov 19, 2013.

Spatial injustice vis-à-vis toilets is so severe that U.S. lawmakers introduced a “Potty Parity Act” in 2010 to seek restroom equality in federal buildings, spaces historically designed for wealthy males to decide the lives of their less empowered compatriots. "Our nation's history,” said the bill’s sponsor Edolphus Towns, “shows that the structure and accessibility of American public restrooms have served as manifestations of more deeply rooted problems of discrimination, among race, physical ability and gender. In 2010, we must move the clock forward by finally addressing an overdue problem of unequal, inadequate and inaccessible public restrooms for women." The New York and Honolulu city councils passed laws in 2005 requiring that bars, sports arenas and other public facilities have twice as many toilets for women as for men, wrote the Washington Post.

While there is a certain quantitative symmetry in the size and number of men’s and women’s toilets, the women’s queues snaking out into the main walkways and the frustrated expressions as women delegates search for an uncluttered loo space speak to an inequity that ripples into the gendered spaces of participation. COP23 is a frenetic event and everyone is pressed for time. In a year when the choice to relieve oneself wars with the choice to rush between meetings potentially over a kilometre apart, quick potty access is an issue. How discouraging to have climate participation compromised over something so small and yet so essential.

There may be a COP Gender Day, but on gendered realities, UNFCCC still has some way to go. We’re waiting.


About the Author: 

Chui-Ling Tam teaches in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, Canada.