Readers may already be wondering: “What on earth has climate change got to do with gender?” The perplexity is understandable, as attention to the gendered dimension of climate is relatively new, and environmental issues are often seen as purely technical problems, to be dealt with by scientists and engineers. Yet climate change impacts are different for women, and including more women in climate action is part of the solution. Gender questions have started to enter the international negotiations arena, but more remains to be done to fully understand and address these issues.
Poverty is a recognized factor of vulnerability to climate change, and 70% of the world’s poor are women. In Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and East Asia, more women than men work in agriculture, a sector particularly vulnerable to climate change. Women are in some cases directly disadvantaged by legislation regarding land ownership or inheritance and they often experience difficulties in accessing credit. Specific funds allocated for climate investments by international organizations often fail to solve this problem, as they are usually designed for large scale and well-capitalized projects and seldom reach women’s groups or communities. The lack of female representation in public institutions also means that it is more difficult for women to make their specific climate-related plight heard and dealt with.
Beyond those overarching problems, many of the disadvantages women suffer from are the result of local social norms and gendered division of labor that make women more vulnerable to climate change. In this division, the lowest, most precarious and least rewarding tasks are often carried out by women. These also happen to be, in many cases, the tasks most affected by climate change. Research has found that, in Mexico, warmer temperatures and depletion of water sources affected women most severely through the disintegration of fruit and vegetable home-processing industries.
Whereas this was the main source of income and social connections for women, men had more varied employment options. Women in Burkina Faso were adversely affected by droughts, as the (male) heads of households controlled their use of grain more severely. As the providers of the household, women had to use their own grain for cooking or buy it themselves. They were also expected to part with goods such as jewelry. Women’s health is often impacted more than that of men: research reveals an increase in stress for female farmers in Australia in times of drought.
Female farmers were not only faced with increasing responsibilities, but there were also more domestic violence incidents linked to economic instability and depression among their male counterparts. Research also found that droughts in Vietnam increased women’s burden as they were assigned the role of fetching water, and now had to go further to get it. In South Africa, climate change led to increased seasonal male migration and spreading of HIV through their partners on their return. Women’s burden also increased as they were the ones who had to care for sick relatives.
Despite these findings, we shouldn’t give in to a unilateral victimization of women. Women are also key stakeholders, as several UNFCCC decisions have recently acknowledged. This recognition should come as no surprise. As scholar Adèle Anna Sasvari writes, “women’s caring abilities, extensive knowledge of their communities, knowledge about natural resources, and high level of risk awareness are essential to effective disaster risk reduction and other adaptation related efforts.” Furthermore, in some OECD countries, women make over 80% of consumer choices.
Studies have revealed that American white males are, in comparison to other groups and genders, both less likely to be knowledgeable about climate change impacts and the least likely to endorse pro-environmental beliefs.
Yet, women are still underrepresented in the climate decision making process. A more balanced participation would lead to a more complete perspective and including women in climate policy would also be an effective way to garner wider support from citizens.
Scholars Gunnhildur Lily Magnusdottir and Annica Kronsell, from Malmö University and Lund University, examining the case of Sweden – where there are as many female climate negotiators as there are male – claim that female presence was instrumental in increasing the public’s sensitivity to climate change. Compared to other nations, Sweden is in the lead on climate-change issues and its population is overall dedicated to pro-environmental action, as the 2009 special Eurobarometer on climate change revealed. The authors of the study link this to a shift in perception resulting from a more balanced representation.
Despite numerous calls by international organizations and NGOs, including women and gender considerations in climate action can be tricky to implement, as Agodo Shabella Patience, founder of the ,Green Teso Initiative, a tree-planting and awareness project in Uganda, explains: “As a woman, you are taken less seriously. You have to work twice as hard to get to the same place.” She talks to us about the existence of laws to promote women’s rights, but deplores the fact that they are rarely implemented.
Even women in elected mandates are often inactive “puppets” while real political power remains in men’s hands. Ms Patience also recalls that when appealing to authorities for support, her interlocutors were usually male. Similarly, when working in rural communities, she says that despite women doing most of the tilling and labor, men must be convinced first, as those who own the land and whose approval is often necessary to get women on board. Ms Patience acknowledges that women possess vital information about the land and their environment, being in such close contact with it, but she stresses that if change is to occur, empowering women is not enough. “We must educate the men,” she says. “It’s a two way street”.
Ms Patience remains optimistic, however. She tells us that once women have been empowered to speak up and act for themselves, they become very effective, are willing to listen and happy to take part in green initiatives. In the future, she would like to see more attention being given to grassroots movements.
“It’s not enough to discuss these things in cities and in convention rooms. We must get out of these rooms if we want to make a difference on the ground. We shouldn’t always look towards big organizations. Change comes from within us. If you change your neighbor’s mind, that’s already a victory.”