Climate change affects women differently – here’s what we can do about it

© UNFPA/Tobin Jones

Our planet is the hottest it has ever been. Seasons have shifted, heatwaves and floods are becoming more common, glaciers have melted, and food crises are getting more intense.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes that temperatures have risen by 1 to 3 degrees Celsius above 1990 levels. Like lots of other changes in the world, this has harmed some regions and benefitted others – but the net costs of global warming and climate change, IPCC warns, will increase over time.

Small changes in temperature tend to lead to enormous changes in the environment. And for women and girls, there tends to be a disproportionate effect when things turn disastrous.

Studies by organisations like the United Nations, Oxfam and ActionAid have found that women and girls tend to be more vulnerable to adverse weather patterns, food insecurity and unpredictable living conditions.

Further compounding the impact of climate change on women is the fact that they make up a majority of the world’s poor, another group at high risk. According to the UN, seven in 10 people living in poverty are women. In urban areas, two in five of the world’s poorest households are headed by women. They additionally make up the majority of the world’s farmers and farm labourers, yet own less than 10 per cent of the land, which means women face significant barriers to independent income and ownership of resources.

But women are not just victims of climate change.

They have inherited knowledge and hands-on experience on adaptation strategies, from water harvesting and recycling, to food preservation and natural resource management.

For Alice Njeri, a farmer in a small village in Kenya’s highlands, “things today are certainly not like they were when I was growing up here.”

Now in her 70s, she has witnessed the shift in what her farm can produce and the income she earns as climate change becomes ever more real.

“Water is much harder to come by these days. Where we used to have rivers, we now have dusty paths. We still have to feed our families and the farm is all we have, so we have become more creative,” she says.

Rather than grow vegetables and staple tubers like sweet potatoes and arrowroot across swathes of land, for instance, they now grow a lot of their food in sacks.

“You fill a gunia (burlap sack) with soil and manure, make holes all around and put your seeds in it. This way you use much less water than when your farm is spread out,” says Njeri.

Her neighbours are also using raised seedbeds, growing their food in much tighter spaces to minimise the amount of water they need. Mulching and makeshift shades are the norm. Any and all water is conserved and recycled.

“In my younger days, we had something growing on the farm the whole year-round. Now, we don’t have that luxury. We eat what the weather allows us to grow,” says Njeri.

But this kind of climate-smart adaptation does not always go as it should. In Africa’s Sahel region, for instance, once irrigated by numerous rivers, temperatures are rising faster than the global average. The UN estimates that 80 per cent of the region’s farmland has been degraded.

In an attempt to hold on to rapidly dwindling river water in Cameroon, the UNHCR reports that fishermen and farmers dug trenches to preserve what they can. The downside is that this has created traps for cattle belonging to herder communities.

This led to violent clashes this month that have forced thousands of people to flee – 98 per cent of them being women and children. Forced into refugee camps, they face increased risks of domestic violence, sexual harassment, trafficking and forced child marriage.

Beyond Africa and in Southeast Asia, 77 per cent of the region’s inhabitants live along low-lying coastlines, and rising water levels threaten to dislodge them. Already, typhoons have struck the Philippines, Myanmar has lived through devastating cyclones, Indonesia is grappling with flooding and Vietnam has listed climate change as an existential threat to its existence.

The result of these weather-related disasters has been displacement from homes, food crises and water insecurities. Deeply ingrained social norms have also meant that women and girls often have been denied the opportunity to pick up skills like swimming, rowing or climbing trees that could help them navigate extreme weather events.

In the Arab region, average mean annual temperatures are expected to rise by more than five degrees Celsius, with dramatic increases in the number of days classified as ‘very hot’; there will also be a general drop in average precipitation rates. Climate change in this region, like in other parts of the world, will have a disproportionate effect on women, the poor and marginalised communities who depend on natural resources to make a living. Women, particularly in rural areas, are heavily dependent on climate-sensitive subsistence farming and pastoralism.

Across the world, established food hierarchies often mean that when meals are in short supply, women and girls are placed at the bottom of the priority list, putting them at risk of starvation. Undernourishment and malnutrition are increasingly becoming familiar foes for these communities. Dwindling pastures, rising food prices and diminishing access to crucial resources are fuelling conflict in more volatile parts of the globe. Women additionally carry the bulk of the care burden, reducing their access to education.

But despite these increasingly tough circumstances, women are finding ways to adapt and ensure the survival of their families and communities.

However, a majority of these concerted efforts to keep up with changes in the environment are being done on a small scale that may be enough for today – but may not hold up in the long term.

The Paris Agreement seeks to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. And this is where policies that are gender-sensitive, that take into account the particular needs and capacities of men and women, must come into play.

Inequalities in access to resources, including land, formal training and credit, must be addressed. Women need to be part of the decision-making on the allocation of resources to mitigate the effects of climate change.

And when it comes to innovating around the climate crisis, there will need to be sensitivity around the economic, social and cultural barriers women may face in accessing these measures.

On this World News Day, we use our platform to underline that climate change affects men and women differently. In too many countries, gender inequalities mean that women are more vulnerable to one of the biggest crises facing our world.

Governments and decision-makers across the world must acknowledge this fact and ensure that women’s unique knowledge and capacities are explored, that their stories are told, and that their ability to be change agents is fully explored.

Our planet matters too much to leave the voices of one half of its population unheard.

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