Women will suffer the worst effects of climate change

Female subsistence farmers in the developing world will bear the most severe impacts of climate change.
Female subsistence farmers in the developing world will bear the most severe impacts of climate change.
Image: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar
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Environmental researchers have made it clear that climate change will affect the world’s poorest more severely, and more imminently, than those of us in the more developed Western world. It is a particularly unpleasant reality of climate change—that those societies that have emitted the most greenhouse gases are not going to be the ones to bear the brunt of its destabilizing effects.

What is often missed in these analyses and forecasts however, is the fact that women make up more than half of the world’s impoverished population. Which means, generally speaking, that women will be more affected by climate change than men in coming decades.

The majority of these women work on the land, and are providers of food and water for their families. These practices are disrupted by obstructed access to natural resources caused by climatic changes—leaving women more susceptible to food insecurity than men, who are more able to work, and eat, outside the home.

It’s also worth noting the distinct vulnerability of women with respect to natural disasters, the regularity of which climate change is predicted to exacerbate. A particularly sobering model for this was the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, after which an average of 77% of the fatalities recorded were women, some of whom drowned as a result of not being taught how to swim.

In addition, studies have shown that women are at increasingly greater risk of gender-based violence due to higher temperatures, and shortages of natural resources. When women are less able to fulfill their duties as managers of the household, they are more vulnerable to domestic violence, and in the aftermath of disasters there has been a marked increase in the rates of sexual and domestic abuse towards women.

This is not to say though that women in the developing world should be seen primarily as victims of climate change. There are countless examples of women in the world’s poorest communities who have recognized their specific vulnerabilities in these instances, and subsequently taken action, challenging restrictive gender norms in the process. In Senegal, for example, climate change has caused farming conditions to worsen. A number of Senegalese women have taken advantage of opportunities to generate earnings outside of the home, by selling goods in local markets, where they can.

In central Mexico, where heavy drought has begun to affect the growth of subsistence crops, local farming women have pooled their knowledge of edible weeds, which are free to pick regardless of land rights, in order to fend off hunger. Their profound knowledge of the natural landscape helps fellow farmers determine which plants are more likely to thrive in increasingly dry conditions, which can replace unadaptive crops as environmental conditions deteriorate.

In Tanzania, women are responsible for collecting firewood for household-energy production. In recent years, they’ve begun to notice the effects of deforestation around their homes, including a deterioration of soil conditions. As a result, a number of communities began tree planting initiatives spearheaded by women, and have been building and using more fuel-efficient stoves in order to reduce their need for firewood.

While these small-scale adaptation measures are encouraging, on a broader scale, there has yet to be widespread recognition that gender considerations are an integral part of any and all areas of climate-change research and policy. For example, on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change website, of the 7,839 documents searchable, there are only 30 results returned for the keyword “gender,” and even fewer for the keyword “women.”

There is hope however for the future, and for the UN Climate Change Conference being held in Paris at the end of this year. Indeed, Laurent Fabius, the incoming president of the conference, appears to have recognized the importance of integrating gender considerations into climate change policies, stating simply that, “Combating climate change means fighting for women’s rights.”