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Why does climate change disproportionately affect women?

Eliminating the gender disparity in climate change impacts is vital to ensure a sustainable today and tomorrow
Eliminating the gender disparity in climate change impacts is vital to ensure a sustainable today and tomorrow

Defined as the long-term adjustment of global and regional climatic patterns, climate change has resulted in severe and frequent extreme weather. However, what has been equally devastating are the disproportionate effects on developing countries, and notably its marginalised members - women and children. Guest blogger Samina Zaman considers the gendered impacts of climate change, and women’s role in tackling it.

The evidence really speaks for itself; sea levels are rising, seasons are shifting and biomes are in decline. Largely attributable to the rise in fossil fuel emissions, climate change is accepted by the majority as a by-product of the ‘economic development’ enjoyed by countries across the world as industry has intensified and globalisation spread.

Climate change is a sustainable management challenge of which everyone has a role to play. From an international to the grass-roots level, the past few decades have seen a proliferation of research, policy and programmes dedicated to combating the impacts of climate change.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol marked the first international signposting of the environmental and social injustices that climate change brings. However, recent research suggests that the gendered experiences of climate change haven't been given enough attention.

Gendered impacts of climate change

Climate resilience is essential if communities are to withstand natural disaster. These homes near Tacloban are being built to last.Of the millions of people living below the poverty line across the world, the majority are female - meaning that women are disproportionately affected by climate change. Furthermore, women are 14 times more likely to die in climate change-related disasters from not being able to swim or living in inadequate and poorly constructed homes.

In countries where women’s rights are compromised, climate-related disaster mortality rates are always higher for women than men. Women are more likely to experience greater negative impacts in the aftermath of such events, due to:

  • increased workload caring for family and working, 
  • difficulty in finding paid employment in the formal sector, 
  • violence and harassment when relocating homes,
  • limited property and land ownership, all of which reduces their ability to recover. 

The more gradual effects of climate change are also fuelling migration, and are expected to displace over 250 million between 2007 and 2050. It has been estimated that 80% of global refugees are women, weakening their existing support systems. Of the women who are left behind, they have to walk further to find increasingly scarce fuel and water and take up several jobs to provide for the family. Many seek informal extra-marital relationships and children enter work in the informal sector to provide some economic stability, making them more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and domestic violence.

A woman protects her baby with clothes, people in the background - Darkenley camp, Mogadishu

The 2007-2008 global food crisis highlighted how drought and rising oil prices can make food prices volatile. This is particularly an issue considering the role women play in producing staple foods. As food prices will often fluctuate with natural or man-made global events, women and children are often situated at the bottom of food hierarchies increasing the gender disparity in climate change impacts.

Tackling climate change

In 2000, the United Nations launched its Millennium Campaign, which comprised eight international Millennium Development Goals (MDG) aimed at reducing poverty by 2015. Reports have shown that there is variation in the progression of each goals. In 2013, the UN reported that global carbon dioxide emissions have increased by more than 46% since 1990, with a 5% increase between 2009 and 2010. Forests have continued to decline, with the largest forest net loss in South America.

However, the Montreal Protocol has resulted in a 98% decline in o-zone deleting emissions since 1987, and an increasing number of companies like Shell are implementing environmentally sustainable practises such as carbon caps. Nonetheless, the recent G20 summit earlier this month highlighted the ongoing battle which remains between economic growth vs cutting carbon dioxide emissions. No doubt it will continue at the United Nations Climate Change Conference next year and with the launch of their post-MDG Sustainable Development Goals.

An irrigation scheme has worked wonder for these farmers in the drought-prone Gode region of Ethiopia

When considering strategies to combat climate change it is important to consider who exactly contributes towards it, and how. Women’s behaviour and consumption patterns differ quite considerably between the developed and developing world. As may be expected, people living in poverty contribute to climate change the least. At a household level, the lower the income the lower the consumption rate is, meaning a smaller carbon footprint. This is particularly true for women in the developing world who tend to use their income more altruistically to meet the basic needs of their family.

Whilst women are often key decision-makers at a household level, on a national and international level they are still largely under-represented, which means that gender-sensitive strategies are not given enough consideration in climate change negotiations. Whilst female representation does not necessarily guarantee a stronger gender equal perspective, it is important that the decision makers, male and female, prioritise these issues.

So... what next?

Eliminating the gender disparity in climate change impacts is vital to ensure a sustainable today and tomorrow for all to enjoy. In order to identify appropriate gender sensitive strategies, the quality of data measuring gender bias needs to be improved too. The ‘invisible data’ gap, outlined in the UN 2014 Data Revolution Report, exacerbates the inequality challenge, which makes it difficult for the full extent of climate change impacts to be understood and addressed.

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