The climate crisis is fast becoming the greatest single threat to humanity, a fact noted by Sir David Attenborough and repeated by leading scientists the world over. As the Earth gets hotter, rivers dry up and crops fail, communities disperse and risks of conflict increase. As more hurricanes, tsunamis and floods occur, there is greater loss of life, livestock and livelihood. Wherever people depend on the environment for their livelihoods, the impact will be greater, and particularly in parts of the global south the greatest burden will be felt by women.
Women bear the greatest burden of the climate emergency
Disasters caused by the climate emergency affect whole populations, but when we look at data, we note that women are affected significantly more than men the world over. An example in an urban setting in the global north was in Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Women were among the worst affected; there was more poverty among women and they took longer to recover from the flood.
However, worst affected are rural areas in the southern hemisphere where the climate emergency is putting additional pressure on natural resources like land and water, which women rely on to feed their families. Often, where food is scarce, women are expected to feed men and boys first, resulting in nutritional risks.
Women are more vulnerable
Women’s roles as primary carers and providers of food and fuel make them more vulnerable. As sources decline during droughts, they have to walk long distances to collect fuel and water; men often go to towns in search of work leaving the women to look after the family and community.
A survey carried out by Oxfam in Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, found that up to 4 women died for every male in the most affected areas. Reasons described how women are often not encouraged to learn how to swim or climb trees; they were often in vulnerable areas near the shoreline, mostly looking after young children; they usually have household duties which might make it difficult to access humanitarian help.
A similar story played out in 2016, after Hurricane Matthew decimated parts of Haiti, leaving nearly one and a half million people (12 percent of the Haitian population) in need of humanitarian help. Again, it was the women who suffered and were more likely to die. They were usually the last to escape as they prioritised their family and children. And even those who escaped had it much harder as they tried to rebuild their lives after losing their homes, livelihood and families. They also had to deal with further health risks and gender-based violence.
Historical inequality of women and girls enhances their vulnerability
The fact that women are less likely to own land, have access to capital or be in positions of power, mean they are rarely involved in decision-making. Women’s learned skills are distinctly different from men’s. These are often overlooked when finding alternative ways of accessing nutritional food, and for planning and implementation of climate programmes.
Displacement causes other problems for women
The climate emergency is forcing people to leave their homes. UN figures show that 80 percent of people displaced by the climate crisis are women. Yet women rarely have a significant voice in the planning and implementation of humanitarian programmes. Displacement brings its own threats. Women and children ending up in evacuation centres can come under increased exposure to violence, including gender-based violence.
Women have particular needs which may tempt them into desperate measures, such as ‘transactional sex’, in order to earn money to help their economic recovery and to support their family. When humanitarian initiatives take women’s needs into account, these kinds of desperate measures can be averted. Where women have a role in planning and implementation of humanitarian programmes, their needs are taken into account and appropriate facilities such as gender separate toilets and bathrooms and separate sleeping areas can be organised for family groups.
Paris 2015 and COP 26
The Paris Agreement of 2015 recognised that women are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, yet their representation in national and global climate negotiating bodies is below 30 percent. They made specific provision for the empowerment of women in the Lima Work Programme on Gender (LWPG). At COP 26, a 5-year enhanced Lima Work Programme on Gender was set up to undertake its Gender Action Plan.
The main objective of Gender Day at COP26 is to progress the struggle for gender equality in dealing with the climate emergency. The focus is on gender, innovation and technology. Representatives from different countries’ will describe their progress in achieving the 5 priority areas in the Gender Action Plan. This is part of the Lima Work Programme of integrating gender into their national climate plans.
So far, typical problems include:
- lack of funding and internet accessibility;
- lack of access to information;
- challenges due to COVID;
- challenges to effective communication on gender and climate change with decision makers;
- low involvement of men.
On 2 November, a joint sponsored statement was made by UN Women and the Scottish government calling for the role of women and girls to be advanced in addressing climate change. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said,
The Glasgow statement recognises that the leadership of women and girls is essential to ensure global efforts to tackle climate change succeed. With strong partnerships between governments, businesses and civil society, we can enable more women and girls to lead on the solutions we need to address climate impacts and promote gender equality. I am determined that Scotland will lead on progressing this at home and internationally where we can, and I call on all leaders to join me in signing up to the statement.
One of the key inhibitors to progress has been the misconception about the relevance of gender for climate outcomes. The perception in the past has been that gender equality is not a priority. However, now there is new optimism. Young people have found their voice and women in positions of leadership are taking up the reins. The empowering of women will ensure they are less likely to be disproportionately affected by future climate disasters.