Climate Change is Exacerbating Gender Inequality

Gender inequality is one of the most pressing issues that we face globally, on moral, economic and social grounds. Climate change can foster gender inequality issues, which can in turn hamper strategies aimed at climate change mitigation.

Around the world and through the decades, we have all shared in the global struggle for gender equality. From the Suffragettes to the Ni Una Menos movement and from Sojourner Truth to Malala Yousafzai, activists and women’s movements have stood up and spoken out for a fairer world, time and time again. Regardless of our age, country, background or gender, the fight for equal rights has collectively defined our lives and we must take action together to achieve it.

The main threats posed by climate change to humanity are: (1) increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (e.g., severe flooding from storms); (2) a decline in human health as people’s resistance to disease is weakened by heat stress, water shortages and malnutrition; (3) increases in infectious diseases, waterborne illnesses and pollution-related respiratory issues; and (4) species extinctions with drastic, and often irreversible, knock-on effects upon a range of ecosystem functions.

From the scientific literature to international reports by the United Nations, World Economic Forum, International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), local NGOs and many more, emerges a clear picture: climate change, while mostly caused by countries in the Global North, will have the most severe consequences for countries in the developing world (i.e., the Global South), impacting especially on the livelihoods, health and wellbeing of the most socially and economically disadvantaged (and politically marginalised) people. Seventy per cent of the 1.3 billion people in the developing world, living below the threshold of poverty and fitting in the aforementioned categories, are women, who will and already are being disproportionally impacted on by climate change1.

First, in many developing countries, cultural traditions make women responsible for collecting water, growing and harvesting food, and sourcing fuel such as wood for daily use (e.g., keeping warm, cooking). This means that women are the least able to respond well to climate change by changing their activity or location2, while men can migrate to better-off locations, change job, etc.

Second, extreme and harsher weather means poorer agricultural yields and scarcity of water, which can lead to spikes in rapes. For example, as local water resources dry up, women have to walk longer distances and face higher risks of being sexually assaulted, which is not an uncommon issue especially in areas roamed by armed gangs3.

Third, when heavy floods wipe out local harvests, the number of forced marriages increases, because families can no longer sustain extra mouths to feed, and thus arrange marriages against their daughters’ will. There are thousands of these cases reported by a recent study by the IUCN3.

Fourth, scarcity of resources can exacerbate social tensions, which often see women as the ultimate receivers of violence. In fact, women are particularly vulnerable to insecurity and conflict as they are responsible for their children and thus cannot flee during raids2. Moreover, decreased resource availability can increase local poverty and reduce access to contraceptives, which means that more women will get pregnant – often against their will. Increased poverty often results in problems relating to anaemia in pregnant women, and health risks accentuated by paucity of resources in both pre- and post-natal care4. Pregnant women are also at particular risk from malaria, which causes serious complications during pregnancy, and other peri- and post-partum illnesses4.

Lastly, when resources become scarcer because of climate change, women have to significantly increase the time they dedicate to resource-gathering activities, which can be physically and mentally straining. Crucially, this also means they have less time to devote to education. In some cases, women may have to take their daughters off school to assist them with work on the farm or in the household, which can have long-term detrimental effects on the empowerment of these girls, including on their ability to seek out and engage in income-generating activities later in their life5.

These are just some of the inequality issues that women face and experience daily, which are exacerbated by climate change and will worsen unless climate action is taken.

In the same way that addressing climate change will be crucial for gender equality, reducing inequality will be essential to mitigate climate change. For instance, women have untapped skills, coping strategies and knowledge that can be used to minimise the impacts of environmental change and disasters5, and are the primary energy users in developing countries7 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Credits: 7

Any environmental policy should recognise women as central actors and powerful agents of change in the transition to sustainable energy and in climate change mitigation. Such representation of women in decision-making processes is lacking to date1 (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Evidence shows that women’s empowerment and advancing gender equality can deliver results across a variety of sectors, including food and economic security and health. It can also lead to more environmentally friendly decision making at household and national levels. Credits:1

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  2. Goh, A.H., 2012. A literature review of the gender-differentiated impacts of climate change on women’s and men’s assets and well-being in developing countries. International Food Policy Research Institute, CAPRi Work.
  4. Denton, F., 2002. Climate change vulnerability, impacts, and adaptation: Why does gender matter?. Gender & Development10(2), pp.10-20.
  6. Lambrou, Y. and Piana, G., 2006. Gender: The missing component of the response to climate change (pp. 1-58). FAO.

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