Gender inequality and climate change are inextricably linked. The combination threatens the lives, health and safety of women and girls around the world. The solutions to these enormous challenges should therefore go hand in hand, experts say.
Gender inequality coupled with the climate crisis is a wide-ranging issue that scientists and policymakers have struggled with for a long time. Meanwhile, the interrelationships between gender, social justice, climate change and loss of biodiversity have been increasingly studied. And the clearer these correlations are, the better the connections can be sought in the solutions: many experts argue that greater gender equality has positive consequences for more effective climate policy and vice versa.
But what exactly does the relationship between gender inequality and climate change look like? How does climate change affect women and girls, and does international climate policy pay enough attention to gender?
Climate change disproportionately affects women and girls, exacerbates existing gender inequalities and threatens their livelihoods, health and safety. That comes in different forms.
Climate change increases social, political and economic tensions in regions affected by conflict. At the same time, climate change leads to more conflict, which makes women extra vulnerable to gender-based violence, sexual violence, human trafficking and child marriage.
In disaster situations such as hurricanes and floods, women are more at risk of being affected by unequal access to the right information, transportation, financial resources and health care. And even in the aftermath of disasters, access to aid is more difficult for women and girls, making them more vulnerable to subsequent disasters.
In many places, women bear a disproportionate responsibility for food, water and fuel. They are more dependent on natural resources, but their access to them is more limited. For many women in low- and lower-middle-income countries, agriculture is the main source of employment. But increasing drought and irregular rainfall make it increasingly difficult to generate a stable income. This in turn means that many girls have to miss school to help their mother.
Climate change is also dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn children. Increasing evidence shows that extreme heat is leading to more stillbirths and that climate change is increasing the spread of things like malaria, dengue fever and the Zika virus – which can negatively affect pregnancy and (premature) birth.
Although women and girls are generally hit harder by the consequences of climate change, the differences between them are large. This is underlined by the so-called intersectionality theory, which examines how different forms of inequality interact and exacerbate each other. For example, it can be seen that the consequences of climate change are often even greater for additional marginalized groups: indigenous or black women, LGBTQ+ people and women living in rural or remote areas.
“If you are invisible in everyday life, your needs will not be thought of in a crisis situation,” said Matcha Phorn-In, a Thai feminist human rights defender. ‘Humanitarian programs are often heteronormative and regularly reinforce the patriarchal structure of society if they do not take into account sexual and gender diversity.’
Women and girls make up half of the world’s population and are hardest hit by climate change, but they are underrepresented in climate policy. For example, women occupy a minority of senior positions within the UN’s climate departments. At national or regional level, this share is much lower. This is not only unjust, but also unwise, says nature conservation organization Both Ends.
Women have a crucial position in many projects and organizations that support biodiversity and climate adaptation. Women carry a lot of – especially local – knowledge about biodiversity, about forestry and agriculture, soil management and water management. In many places it is also women, mostly from indigenous communities, who lead the resistance against fossil projects and the degradation of ecosystems. This makes them extra vulnerable to intimidation and violence. Female climate and human rights activists are more likely to experience sexual violence and intimidation, research shows.
Especially in extractive sectors – such as large-scale mining – women run a significant risk of violence. Nearly 30 percent of women climate and human rights advocates murdered since the Paris climate accord have campaigned against extractive industry projects.
That is why, say civil society organizations, it is so important that women are supported and much more involved in policy and political decision-making.
A 2019 study shows that a greater representation of women in national governments leads to stricter climate policies, resulting in lower emissions. At the local level, women’s participation in natural resource management is associated with better resource management and conservation outcomes. Female leadership is associated with greater transparency about the climate impact of companies and organisations.
Putting gender equality at the heart of climate change solutions means incorporating different gender perspectives into sustainable policies and climate programs, experts say.
The equal participation of women in decision-making processes must therefore be the top priority in the fight against climate change, says UN Women, the United Nations Organization for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. According to the institution, a sustainable, more equal future is unattainable without gender equality.
Climate solutions should also invest in gender-specific data to gain an even clearer picture of the relationship between gender and climate, but also, for example, to strengthen land rights and promote sustainable solutions led by women or women focused on women. Finally, climate solutions should adopt a gender-sensitive approach to financing.
Mining projects that damage the environment also disrupt social structures, affecting entire communities and women in particular, says Rachel Cox, campaigner at environmental organization Global Witness. That is why we must require companies to review their social and climate impacts with much higher human rights and environmental standards. Governments should hold companies that fail to do so legally liable.
“Gender inequality is closely linked to the climate crisis,” says Cox. And vice versa, we will not solve the climate crisis as long as gender inequality persists. Solving both requires a paradigm shift.’
This analysis originally appeared on the MO*magazine website, www.mo.be.