Photo credit: Jaipal Singh/EPA
Increasingly, the consequences of climate change are being felt the world over. Recently the media has been preoccupied with fires in Australia, flooding in the UK, changing demands for agricultural practices across the globe in response to changing weather conditions. Most of the humanitarian disasters caused by climate change, such as the food crises in Madagascar, Haiti, or Ethiopia in 2018, went underreported by the global media, despite natural disasters in 2018 alone being responsible for the deaths of at least 5 thousand people and subjected almost 29 million people to humanitarian aid. It is even less frequently reported that women are affected differently by climate change largely because of their additional responsibilities within their families and communities. How and why? We will explore these questions and consider the intersection of climate change and gender throughout this article.
Women are disproportionately affected by climate change as they are worse positioned in social, economic and political hierarchies. Women everywhere are less likely to influence decisions that affect their lives and women are more likely than men to be poor. While both men and women suffer in poverty and crises, gender discrimination means that women have far fewer resources to cope. They are likely to be the last to eat, the ones least likely to access healthcare, and are routinely trapped in time-consuming, unpaid domestic tasks. They are further disadvantaged due to lack of legal and land rights, which leaves them exposed to exploitation.
People with low income are overall more affected by crisis and the majority of the world’s poor are women. In rural areas, this can be because they depend on natural resources for food, water, and income, which are becoming increasingly scarce. Women are often the person responsible in the family for providing the resources to cook with, to use for heating, and for collecting water. Natural, local resources are disappearing and women in communities across the globe are required to walk further and further to get what they need.
Finally, women are more exposed to the negative impacts of disasters, such as sickness, injury, or even death, due to their lower socio-economic status, behavioural restrictions, and lesser access to information. In the past decades, these disasters have become more frequent and severe due to climate change.
While climate policies are yet to fully address the different impacts of climate change on different genders, there has been a shift towards implementing gender-sensitive climate policies to acknowledge the different needs of those affected and pave the way for climate action by, and for, women. Unlocking the capability of women is an important opportunity to creating and sustaining effective climate solutions.
Families often need to take their daughters out of school so they can help to make money, manage the household, or care for siblings. This creates developmental gaps in women’s lives that have several consequences, for instance, a lack of knowledge on climate change and ways to deal with its effects.
When families struggle to survive due to the climate crisis, for example, if crops were bad and couldn’t be harvested, or the village was flooded, families might end up marrying off their young daughters to alleviate the financial strain. About 12 million girls are thought to have been married off due to natural disasters and reports have shown that human trafficking rises in areas where the natural environment is under stress. Child marriages are also linked to early pregnancy, which in itself can be a threat to the mother and the baby, in addition to limiting a girl’s access to education.
Climate change can bring unpredictable weather patterns, less food, decreasing access to safe water and unstable living conditions. These factors affect women’s health in various ways. Firstly, women and girls are more likely to starve due to differences in income, employment opportunities and even cultural traditions that allow them to eat last and smaller proportions of meals. Secondly, some diseases are more dangerous for girls due to menstruation, pregnancy or young motherhood as women in these stages are already more exposed to develop complications such as infections, high blood pressure, severe bleeding, or unsafe abortions, especially if they don’t receive adequate healthcare. Additionally, if the country is heavily affected by disasters, there will be a disruption to health services which often leads to an increase in sexual and health problems.
As in many crisis and conflicts, research has shown that the climate crisis increases physical, verbal, and sexual abuse against women. When women and children flee their homes as a result natural disaster or poverty caused by drought or floods, they become more vulnerable to human trafficking, rape, and child marriage and it has been shown that natural disasters have increased sexual trafficking by 20-30%. Migration can also be incredibly expensive, and vulnerable women are forced into owing sums of up to £40,000 in exchange for safe passage. They are told if they won’t pay, terrible thing will happen to their families, therefore they are forced into prostitution across Europe. However, money is not the only way gangs recruit women, they also use false promises of legitimate employment, and traditional ceremonies to have psychological control over them. According to the UN 80% of all Nigerian women who arrived in Italy by boat in 2016 will be trafficked into prostitution.
Additionally, sexual abuse is often found in unsustainable and illegal businesses, for instance in illegal fishing in Southeast Asia, logging in Congo, or mining in Colombia and Peru. There is also an increasing amount of violence directed against climate change activists and defenders.
First of all, we must protect and ensure girls’ education. It is the basis of affecting change across the board and a necessary element of a holistic solution. Not only it is every child’s right to receive an education, but this must be utilised to prepare children for the challenges associated with climate change and provide them with the resources to face these challenges. Through education, girls need to be supported to do the best they can and more, to be ambitious and to become leaders. Secondly, to empower women as agents of change and innovation rather than considering them purely as victims of climate change. If we support women into positions of leadership, climate policy, and decision making then we are enabling an environment for gender-sensitive environmental action to flourish. Despite women’s key role in climate action and coming up with effective solutions, they are still woefully underrepresented at the leadership level, particularly women of colour. We have to start by acknowledging the fact that women make decisions on climate change every day, that they are often responsible for childcare, purchasing decisions as consumers or influencing carbon emissions as farmers. The potential of women to transform their lives is unlimited – if they are given the opportunity to shine.
At The Circle, we aim to address the inequalities that women and girls face across the globe by empowering them directly and influencing change, policy systems, and processes. To find out more about our work click here.
This article was written by Anna Renfrew and Csenge Gábeli. Anna is the Project and Communications Officer at The Circle and Csenge is one of our volunteers. Csenge is a university student, a volunteer, and a feminist. She is originally from Hungary, but has started my university in London, which she loves.