By Imogen Reed,
So we’ve got the Vote, we’ve got the Pill, we’ve got the Sex Discrimination Act, I reminded myself this International Women’s Day. We’ve come a long way. But in the face of climate change, women the world over are likely to find that gender is once again an issue.
A comprehensive new report by the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) -“Gender and the Climate Change Agenda” – finds that women contribute less to climate change, are impacted more by it, and have less say in decisions relating to it. As a result, WEN is campaigning for gender and climate justice.
Detrimental effects of climate change can be short and sharp, such as floods, hurricanes and landslides, and can also happen more gradually, such as soil erosion and drought. Whilst these events affect many aspects of life adversely, in terms of access to water, food, transport, industry and transport, women are more vulnerable to their effects than men.
The main reason for this is that women constitute the majority of the world’s poor. Furthermore, their livelihoods depend more upon natural resources which are under threat from climate change. In terms of being able to cope with, or have power to combat, the effects of the sudden or gradual degradation of the environment, women across the world face social, economic and political barriers.
As we already know, the rural population in developing countries is particularly vulnerable due to their high dependency on natural resources for their livelihood. Typically it is the women’s responsibility to find water, food and fuel for cooking and heating, and so women face the greatest challenges.
As women and girls in the developing world are tasked with sourcing and fetching water, they are more likely to pay the price in terms of health for poor sanitation, water scarcity and contamination. In addition, floods, which are becoming more common both rurally and in urban areas, are likely to increase the prevalence of water and vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, and diarrhoea. This is likely to aggravate women’s care-giving of family and community members who are taken ill.
The connections between climate change, energy supplies and gender roles are strongest in countries with low availability of basic electricity and modern fuels, as well as high dependence on biomass fuels for cooking, heating and lighting. Around two billion people in the developing world come under this category, and their cultural traditions make women responsible for gathering fuel and providing food, even when this involves long hours performing heavy physical tasks or walking substantial distances. The impact of climate change on these societies is likely to be that women will have to spend even longer hours fetching firewood, drawing water and working the land.
WEN points out that, given these numerous responsibilities and tasks, women in developing countries should be actively engaged in national energy decision-making. Not only do existing energy supplies need to be managed more effectively and productively in the face of climate change, but also an alternative to the dependence on biomass fuels needs to be found. Any solution put forward must be workable for the women of the community, as they are the ones who shoulder the responsibility on a day-to-day basis.
Many women experience limited mobility, both literally and figuratively. They have an unequal access to resources, often including education, and are excluded from decision-making processes, and they are unlikely to have access to transport. This leaves women more likely to be stuck in rural areas, and “discriminated against” by climate change. Of course, internal and cross-border migration can and does occur as a survival response to climate change, but this in itself further exacerbates loss of eco-systems and biodiversity.
While it is easy to take technology for granted as we browse the internet on our laptop, lying on an organic mattress and sipping Fair Trade green tea, in many developing countries, the access of girls and women to information and communication technology is seriously constrained. We still see some social and cultural bias against technological subjects in our schools today. In the developing world this is compounded by an inadequate technological infrastructure in rural areas, women’s lower educations levels (especially in the fields of science and technology) and the suspicion of, or indifference, to technology. Further, if women are able to access and utilise technology services, they lack the disposable income to purchase them.
WEN reminds us, however, that women are not only vulnerable to climate change but they are also “effective actors or agents of change in relation to both mitigation and adaptation”. Women often have a strong body of collective knowledge and individual expertise that can be used successfully in, disaster reduction, climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. Snce for the majority of the world’s women, our place is still “in the home”, our role as stewards of natural and domestic resources and care-givers in the family and community, means that the world can no longer afford to ignore our contributions to environmental strategy.