Linkages between Gender, Climate Change and Environment

What is the issue?

As the world’s climate continues to change, the inability to reduce warming to below 2 degrees may force us to face irreversible consequences. While the negative effects of climate change affect vulnerable and poor people, they continue to especially push poor women. Although efforts of women and men in vulnerable societies are gaining more appreciation in terms of their contribution to the environmental sustainability and development, women still have less economic, political and legal autonomy, and it is a fact that there are gaps in the three dimensions of women’s autonomy, decision-making, economic autonomy and control over their own bodies, as the United Nations states. Therefore they are less able to deal with the negative effect of climate change. On the other hand, women are an increasingly powerful agent of change and sustainable development despite the current structural and socio-cultural barriers and continue to make significant contributions. Let’s imagine a woman living in an underdeveloped country. She is poor, like the other women in her village and her family. She has five children, but she works in the fields, most commonly collecting fuelwood or water for the house, all day long. She does the same hard work as a man, but at the end of the day her salary is significantly less, or she might now have any. Besides, she is also responsible for feeding her family at home. The fumes are damaging to her health as she cooks in a closed charcoal fuelwood. While she might have a great idea for a business that would benefit families like hers, like solar cooking stoves, all her money and time just goes to survive right now. This is also a fact for millions of women around the world.

Women are usually responsible for collecting and producing food, collecting water and providing fuel for heating and cooking. With climate change, these tasks are getting more difficult. Extreme weather events such as drought and floods have a greater impact on the poor and the most vulnerable, 70% of the world’s are poor women.

Although women are disproportionately affected by climate change, they play a crucial role in climate change adaptation and mitigation solutions. Women have knowledge and understanding of what is required to adapt to changing environmental conditions and to come up with practical solutions. However, they are still largely unused resources. Limited land rights, lack of access to financial resources, education and technology, and limited access to political decision-making spaces often prevent them from playing a full role in tackling climate change and other environmental challenges.   Only in 28 countries women have right to own land. Female farmers receive 5% of all agricultural extension services in 97 countries. 15% of the extension agents are women, 10% of total aid for agricultural forestry and fishing goes to women. 90% of the countries have at least one law restricting economic equality for women.

Rural microfinance comes with its own challenges. Unlike cities, where the population is concentrated in small areas, the rural population is spread over large areas with poor infrastructure. It is more costly to lend to a dispersed population. Transaction and information costs are high. Many poor people living in rural areas do not have property rights and land tenure rights and often do not have collateral to secure loans.

Difficulties Women and Girls Face

“The IPCC [International Panel on Climate Change] found that gender inequalities are further exaggerated by climate-related hazards, and they result in higher workloads for women, occupational hazards indoors and outdoors, psychological and emotional stress and higher mortality compared to men,” Verona Collantes, an intergovernmental specialist with UN Women, told Global Citizen.

“Gender inequality hampers women’s capacity and potential to be actors of climate action. These gender inequalities — access to and control over resources, access to education and information, and equal rights and access to decision-making processes — define what women and men can do and cannot do in a particular context of climate change,” she added.

In developing countries, women tend to work much longer hours than men.

UNICEF said the 200 million hours women and girls spend each day collecting water is an enormous waste of their precious time. Sanjay Wijesekera, head of UNICEF’s global water, sanitation and hygiene said, ‘’ 200 million hours is 8.3 million days or more than 22,800 years, a woman who started the Stone Age with her empty bucket would not have come home with water until 2016. Think about how far the world progressed at that time. Think how much women have achieved then.’’ He also added, ‘’ When water is not on site and needs to be collected, it is often our women and girls who pay for their time and lose opportunities.’’ In some communities, these activities can take up to four hours a day and in some central American countries, this can go up to 5 or 6 between women and children.

A study conducted in Africa found that women carried over 80 tons of fuel, water and farm produce over a distance of 1 km for a year. Men have transported an average of 10 tons per 1 km each year, or one eighth.

Studies have shown that women use almost everything they earn from marketing agricultural products and crafts to meet their household needs, only when they’re allowed to work. Men use at least 25 percent of their earnings for other purposes.

The Relationship between Poverty, Gender and Climate Change

According to the OECD report on poverty and climate change, there are 2 chief messages emerging,

  • Climate change is happening and will increasingly affect the poor.
  • Adaptation is necessary and there is a need to integrate responses to climate change and adaptation measures into strategies for poverty reduction to ensure sustainable development.

Currently over 1 billion people – two thirds of them women – live in extreme poverty on less than US$1 a day. This figure rises to 2.8 billion if a standard of US$2 a day is used (OECD 2001).

Vulnerability among the poor varies, as some groups lack more financial, social and political means of securing alternative livelihoods that are less at risk. For example, women can be constrained by social and cultural structures that place them in sub-social positions, limiting their access to income, education, public opinion and survival mechanisms. In addition, the coping capacities of the poor are already tense due to a number of trends including HIV / AIDS, increasing population densities and the harmful forces associated with globalization. Climate change will increase these trends and increase vulnerabilities.

Droughts, floods and other extreme weather events due to climate change disrupt and reduce drinking water supplies and increase water-related diseases such as cholera and diarrhea, especially in regions with poor sanitary infrastructure. Inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation, combined with poor hygiene practices, are major causes of ill health and life-threatening diseases in developing countries. Currently, these diseases kill an estimated 2,213 million people each year in developing countries, and about 90 percent of them are children under the age of five. Women are particularly vulnerable to water-related diseases through traditional washing and collecting work.

With the resolutions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), work has been initiated to improve the adaptation capacity of poor people and poorer countries (Least Developed Countries) to cope with the effects of climate change. Still, a stronger focus should be on poverty reduction and sustainable development. It is believed that the development and environmental community should ensure that adaptation is not addressed as a stand-alone issue, but in the context of poverty reduction and the SDGs.

Many examples show that addressing poverty also means being prepared for climate variability and extremes. While climate change is just one of many factors that affect poverty, immediate action must be taken to adapt to the effects of climate change. The authors of the OECD report claim that many possible interventions have already been identified and can be acted upon today. Their combined experience shows that the best way to address the impacts of climate change on the poor is to integrate adaptation measures into sustainable development and poverty reduction strategies.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on July 7, 2021.


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