Climate Change and Women
An analysis of impacts through a gender lens
Climate patterns play an important role in shaping our natural ecosystems and the economies and culture that depend on them. But, in the contemporary era, it has become one of the greatest challenges to the world. It has been rightly termed as “humanity’s biggest challenge in modern times” by COP27 President Sameh Shoukry as it continues to impact and change our world. Millions of people are already suffering from the catastrophic effects of extreme weather disasters exacerbated by climate change – from prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa to devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Scorching temperatures have caused deadly heatwaves in Europe and wildfires in South Korea, Algeria and Croatia. There has been severe flooding in Pakistan, while a prolonged and intense drought in Madagascar has left many million people with very limited access to adequate food.
The increasing demand for energy and resources due to population growth and industrialisation has stretched resources, resulting in exploitation and its attendant effects on the environment.
Climate change and its direct consequences, such as floods, droughts, deforestation, land degradation, water scarcity, heat waves, storms, soil losses, farmers and herder crisis and rapid urbanisation, have adverse implications on physical infrastructure, water, energy supply and employment. All these have altered the economies of the world and social relations. To be sure, everyone is affected by the changes, but women are disproportionately affected due to the imbalance in power relations and resources allocation, particularly in developing countries.
Women and girls experience the greatest impacts of climate change, which amplifies existing gender inequalities and poses unique threats to their livelihoods, health and safety. They suffer higher risks and a greater burden in the face of poverty as the majority of the world’s poor are women. When disasters strike, women are less likely to survive and more likely to be injured due to long-standing gender inequalities that have created disparities in information, mobility, decision-making, and access to resources and training. In the aftermath, women and girls are less able to access relief and assistance, further threatening their livelihoods, wellbeing and recovery, and creating a vicious cycle of vulnerability to future disasters.
Women’s and girls’ health is endangered by climate change and disasters by limiting access to services and health care, as well as increasing the risks related to maternal and child health. Research indicates that extreme heat increases the incidence of stillbirth, and climate change is increasing the spread of vector-borne illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever, and Zika virus, which are linked to worse maternal and neonatal outcomes.
The discussion on climate change has often neglected the gender dimensions of its impacts. Many international protocols on climate change do not capture a gender perspective on proposals to fight climate change.
We must realise that climate change widens the existing gender inequalities and poses a unique range of threats to the livelihood, health and safety of women and girls. Without gender analysis of the impact of climate change, we overlook an important aspect of social life in a changing climate. As the world struggles to promote a sustainable environment, attention must be given to the survival needs of the most vulnerable in society.
Climate change has serious ramifications in four dimensions of food security: food availability, food accessibility, food utilisation and food systems stability. Women constitute the significant global poor, and they rely on farming for survival in contrast to men, who enjoy economic advantage. Women farmers currently account for 45-80% of all food production in developing countries depending on the region (according to www.un.org).
About two-thirds of the female labour force in developing countries, and more than 90% in many African countries, are engaged in agricultural work. Thus, when farming comes under severe weather conditions, resulting in the loss of soil, deforestation and other social threats, women face a loss of income and their sources of livelihood, and this further pushes them into poverty.
Women are often excluded from decision-making on access to, and the use of, land and resources critical to their livelihoods. It is important, therefore, that the rights of rural women are ensured in regard to food security, non-discriminatory access to resources, and equitable participation in decision-making processes.
In many cases, women have limited access to information on new techniques on adaptive measures to manage the effects of climate change on their environment and farming. These also expose women to suffer more from the vagaries associated with climate change.
Last year, a large part of Pakistan was affected by floods. These floods have led to the loss of many lives and destruction of crops and livestock in particular leading to a worsening food crisis. Women are usually the main victims of such a crisis and where they survive, they become widows and often the main breadwinners of the family. Many women end up becoming internally displaced persons.
Urbanisation is an important transformation that may help to reduce poverty and inequality through the creation of employment opportunities. It may also contribute to environmental sustainability through efficient use of resources, and improved social welfare through better service delivery. However, this can only be achieved through the adoption of gender-based policies and planning on the alleviation of various aspects of urban poverty.
Essentially, addressing the impact of climate change on gender, involves addressing factors that affect the welfare of women and girls, and their human rights, as well as the resources on which their livelihoods depend. Improving climatic conditions can be an effective way to increase their income, improve their health, raise their educational standards, empower them and reduce their vulnerability to natural hazards.
Governments must demonstrate a commitment to institutional reforms and legal frameworks to ensure that more women are involved in climate-related planning, policy making and implementation.
There is a pressing need for improved public education and enlightenment on the effects of climate change, and adequate funding for adaptation strategies, as well as information relating to agricultural management, especially among the rural population.
The key element is to build the capacity of women and girls to be able to contribute to the discussions on climate change and the decision-making process directed at addressing this scourge. Capacity development requires a commitment to positive attitudinal change, training on adaptive measures and greater involvement in policy dialogue and institutional reforms.
The writer is a Faisalabad-based academic.