Words by Nicola Blackburn. Nicola is a London-based freelance journalist currently writing on science and health-related topics. You can find her on Twitter @nn_blackburn.
'We have an unprecedented chance to design a better future. We know that policies that reduce climate change or its impacts can reduce gender equality, and vice versa, as long as they are truly designed in consultation with women.’
Dr Tasmin Edwards, Climate Scientist, King’s College London. Climate change is a human rights issue. Its impacts are keenly felt in countries that occupy the Global South, many of which are poorly equipped to deal with natural disaster. Mass-flooding and dryer land are denying the world’s poor their right to food, water and shelter - and women are being disproportionately affected. In fact, they account for over three quarters of those displaced by climate change globally. How are women disproportionately affected by climate change? In rural areas of many Global South countries, women’s occupations depend upon the land. Female farmers account for 45-80 percent of all food production in developing countries. Alongside farming, women are often responsible for collecting biofuel (such as wood) and water to provide heat and nourishment for their families. In many communities, it is the indigenous women who possess knowledge of the properties and remedial uses of local wildlife. Deforestation and natural disaster - brought about by climate change - are disempowering women, by damaging the natural environments they rely upon. These hazards are also introducing new health risks for women. Deforestation is making biofuel collection more arduous for women, moving forests further and further from communities. This means the 2 to 20 hours per week women currently spend walking to collect biofuel is growing. The long distances increase their risk of injury and exposure to sexual harassment and assault. As land becomes drier due to climate change, rural women will also walk longer distances for water, posing the same risks. On the other hand, increases in mass-flooding will make water-born diseases, such as schistosomiasis, more common. As water providers, women may have greater exposure to such diseases. Positive climate action - turning to renewable energy and offsetting our carbon emissions - might prevent further environmental destruction. But it won’t reverse climate-induced gender inequalities. What needs to change? In order for positive climate action to work, policy-making needs to take into account the perspectives of those most affected: women from rural communities. As providers of biofuel and water for their households, women can contribute invaluable knowledge to renewable energy initiatives and discussions. Despite this, women’s lack of rights and poor education in many Global South countries means they are excluded from climate initiatives. This also translates onto an international level, as currently, over two-thirds of climate-related decision-making roles are occupied by men. A lack of female representation in governance means that climate solutions are unlikely to attend to gender equality issues. Imagine a policy requiring all factories in the Global South to become carbon-neutral by 2030. If this policy is to promote equal gender rights, it should ensure that such factories hire a decent proportion of women, that women feel safe in the workplace, and that its health and safety measures suit women’s needs. To give another example, consider ‘clean’ technologies such as wind and solar power. Managing these technologies requires an educational background in science and technology and the income to invest in these technologies, neither of which women from third-world, rural communities are likely to have. Women must have access to relevant training, and technological initiatives must adjust to become less daunting and more inclusive for these women. A male-dominated body overseeing ‘clean’ technologies is unlikely to consider these needs. To ensure positive climate action promotes gender equality goals, women must have influence at the policy-making level. Women shouldn’t be victims of climate change, but active agents in the fight against it. What can you do to help? 1) Make contact with climate action groups, those local to you and those with wider influence. Is there somebody involved in charge of gender affairs? If not, explain why there is a need for this.
2) Contact environmentally-conscious businesses and ask these questions, too.
3) Write to the government and ask them to reconsider the demographic of their team for the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November. Six of the eight most senior members are men. She Changes Climate are campaigning for 50/50 representation - join their social media campaigns. Equal representation on the team will send the message internationally that the UK takes gender-related climate issues seriously. 4) Support women-led climate change relief initiatives and businesses. In the UK there’s Uplift, whilst Climate Vulnerable Forum and Women’s Climate Centers International are operating internationally. 5) Support charities that are alert and working to combat this issue, such as ActionAid and GenderCC. 6) Get involved with anti-deforestation campaigns in your area. You can stay informed on climate change and gender equality by following the work of organizations leading this cause: UN Women, United Nations Climate Change Secretariat and the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change.