At least at ANU, I think that most people understand the geophysical risks of climate change, and I’d even suggest that they could conceive the possible resulting socio-political and security risks for individuals and states. As the climate change crisis continues to unfold, these consequences will continue to demand the development of both mitigation and adaptation strategies. What I believe we less routinely notice, however, is the role of gender in all of this – and, in particular, how women* around the world are disproportionally impacted. Perhaps on the surface, drawing this link may appear far-fetched. But the evidence is right in front of us …
The Bangladeshi Department of Environment explains the inequality of climate change’s impacts through the concept of social vulnerability. They argue that people’s differential access to and control over resources – such as land, money, credit, good health and personal mobility – are all closely interwoven with their ability to survive and recover from disasters. Gender is, undoubtedly, a key determinant of social vulnerability. Around the world women constitute the majority of the world’s poorest, with livelihoods more dependent on natural resources, and relatively larger social, economic and political barriers in their way. Essentially, this combination of limited access to resources, political power and social mobility will result in women around the world being disproportionally affected by climate change.
We know that women play a crucial role in agriculture and are more severely affected by food insecurity – and climate change will significantly impact both of these things. Accounting for 45 per cent – 80 per cent of food production in the developing world – and more than 90 per cent in most African countries – women will find their sources of food and income especially threatened by climate change. Environmental degradation, and extreme weather events such as droughts and floods and irregular weather patterns, are all expected to continue to occur throughout the world, and as they do, jeopardise food security. After these environmental disasters occur, not only is there the immediate loss of income and employment but often the only jobs available are in construction, re-building and development, which are traditionally male-dominated. Furthermore, during food shortages the health of women and girls is seen to be decline more than that of the rest of the population.
If there is a consensus that women around the world tend to have less access to resources and socio-political power, and tend to be less mobile, then it must be acknowledged that this dictates their increased vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.
Climate change also poses serious threats to clean water availability, which affects the domestic and productive tasks traditionally performed by women, as well as women’s health. Around the world the burden of fetching water is largely shouldered by women, who may make lengthy journeys every day to this end. As water continues to become scarcer, especially in rural and developing regions, women will have to travel greater distances. If additional help is required, young girls are also more likely to be withdrawn from education systems to help at home. Increasingly contaminated water sources also threaten the health of the women who handle the water, as well as that of their families. For people who experience menstruation, many of whom are women, a lack of clean water to wash themselves, their clothes and sanitary facilities has also been linked to reproductive tract infections, secondary infertility, urinary tract infections and anemia.
Biodiversity and habitat loss will also threaten other resources, which will similarly be detrimental for women. As environmental degradation continues to occur, flows of internal and cross-border migration will be encouraged, if not forced. People from agriculturally-based communities as well as those in areas most vulnerable to extreme weather events will need to search for more secure incomes and livelihoods. These transitions will especially affect women, as they tend to heavily rely on natural products for energy, food and income. The consequences of having to relocate their families and communities include being left with less time and community support for domestic tasks, political engagement, education and public activities, as well as potential social, political and economic isolation in their new environments.
Climate change-related disasters such as heat waves, floods, storms and droughts are also believed to contribute to increases in mortality, morbidity and the spread of infectious diseases. There is an abundance of evidence that links the evolution and distribution of infectious diseases – such as cholera, malaria and dengue fever – with climate and weather. In addition to women’s own vulnerability, their traditional roles as primary caregivers for youths leaves them especially exposed as infectious diseases are largely carried by young children, who are inevitably high-risk populations during health epidemics.
Women also face a lack of global political power, which severely limits their agency in combatting climate change. This is particularly drastic in states where women still lack the right to vote, but is by no means limited to these extreme cases. This is particularly fascinating as research by the Natural Resources Defence Council suggests that women more readily negotiate and sign international agreements, which are crucial for an issue as global in nature as climate change. Another key concern is that strategies for confronting climate change, typically designed by men, are ignorant to the influence of gender, and lack sensitivity to the many ways in which women uniquely experience its effects. Women are further disempowered by their limited access to the education required to manage climate-related agricultural risks and access assistance during extreme weather events.
Bringing all of this information together makes that ‘far-fetched’ link between gender and climate change seem far less abstract. If there is a consensus that women around the world tend to have less access to resources and socio-political power, and tend to be less mobile, then it must be acknowledged that this dictates their increased vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.
So, what can we do about this? Women need access to education and socio-political empowerment – although this is easier said than done. While women are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, they can also be effective agents in global efforts to mitigate and adapt to its ramifications. The more that women around the world are educated and included in learning about the geo-physical risks at hand, the more they can empower themselves and their communities to prepare for them. Women have strong bodies of traditional, environmental and community knowledge, and when they achieve greater access to and control over resources, it is found that women are more likely to use them for family health, growth and economic stability. Moreover, women are said to be more likely to use new information to make decisions that minimize risk.
Not only are women’s empowerment and equality goals in their own right, they are now also essential if there is any hope of mitigating climate change and achieving a sustainable future.
*I use the word ‘women’ to concisely refer to all women-identifying and women-presenting people.