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Women’s Role in the Climate Emergency

March 2023 by Louise Harling & Nicole Leslie Charria

Photo by María Fuentes on Unsplash

Women, particularly those from lower-income countries (LICs), are especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change. Pre-existing inequalities which affect women on a day-to-day basis are exacerbated, such as availability and quality of water and food, land use changes, and health and safety. As a ‘threat multiplier’, climate change escalates social, political and economic tensions, making women more vulnerable to gender-based violence and exploitation—gender is a key factor that compounds vulnerability to climate change impacts.

A note on intersectionality 

Before we understand the ways in which women are impacted more severely by climate change, it is important to remember that women globally vary in different degrees of existing vulnerability. Lived experiences differ greatly due to class, race, disability, sexuality and geographical location. Women cannot be grouped into a section of society that intrinsically understands the environment more, as by doing so, we put the onus of climatic responsibility onto shoulders that have had some of the least involvement in the crisis in the first place.

Instead, it is necessary to support smaller, individual actions—ones that women across the globe are doing, changing behaviours every day to avert the climate crisis. By repeating the idea of vulnerable women in the global South, or believing women have a stronger connection towards the environment and the Earth, we load responsibility onto them, instead of enabling action to empower.

Gender inequality

Gender inequality is one of the many contributing factors that lead to a heightened vulnerability for women to the climate crisis. The most marginalised, poorest or disadvantaged are usually most at risk. Oftentimes, women fall into this category, with climate change posing a threat to livelihoods, health and safety. When disaster strikes, women are less likely to survive. They are also more likely to be injured and are less able to access relief and assistance. The displacement, conflict and violence that come from disasters worsened by climate change also disproportionately affect women—with gender-based violence, assault, trafficking, and labour exploitation becoming more difficult to police. They are left with difficult decisions to ensure the safety of family, loved ones and assets.

The double risk from poverty and environmental degradation affects women and women’s assets differently due to social and cultural norms. These include a lack of political voice or economic disadvantage; for example, unequal access to assets, resources, finance and decision-making processes, both at the individual or political level. Additionally, women in rural communities face the added barrier of relying on a rapidly changing landscape and weather patterns for their livelihoods—such as through subsistence farming. They depend on, yet have less access to, natural resources; bearing disproportionate responsibility for securing food, water and fuel. During extreme weather events (which are rapidly becoming more and more common), women are increasingly dependent on land at high risk of dramatic degradation to support their families, provide an income and improve their quality of life.

Invisible barriers

Many women are also responsible for unpaid labour (childcare, cooking, cleaning, basic necessity retrieval), which is made harder by unpredictable weather patterns, financial difficulty and life-threatening emergencies. They are working twice as hard to sustain these responsibilities in times of crisis, leading to young girls not completing their education because supporting their families with home life is a more immediate priority. This has consequences later on—gaining employment, contraceptive agency, property ownership and advocating for themselves.

“If you are invisible in everyday life, your needs will not be thought of, let alone addressed, in a crisis situation,” says Matcha Phorn-In, a lesbian feminist human-rights defender who works to empower stateless and landless Indigenous women, girls and young LGBTIQ+ people in Thailand’s Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, and Tak provinces. “Humanitarian programmes tend to be heteronormative and can reinforce the patriarchal structure of society if they do not take into account sexual and gender diversity,” Phorn-in explains. “In addressing structural change, we are advocating for and working towards equality of all kinds.”

Involving women in decisions

There is an ethical and practical necessity to involve women’s needs, perspectives and expertise in climate change solutions. Growing bodies of evidence show that women’s participation and leadership in climate action are associated with better resource governance, conservation outcomes, and disaster readiness. Community-focused solutions allow for interrelations between socio-economic, cultural, political and environmental stressors to be considered when tailoring interventions.

Top-down solutions fail to acknowledge marginalised voices, and this is one of the main political barriers to women’s empowerment in the climate crisis. For example, at the most recent COP27 Summit, just seven of 110 leaders present were women. A BBC analysis found that women made up less than 34% of country negotiating teams there. One way to resolve this is to support women’s leadership and promote other women taking a stand for the planet and themselves.

Chipko Women

2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the Indian Chipko Andolan Movement, one of the strongest grassroots protests from the 1970s, led by Indigenous women. They were a group of people from the Uttarakhand region in India, who – when faced with the possibility of losing the forests they depended on for subsistence, flood protection and cultural value – rallied together to face state loggers, holding hands and hugging the trees. The loggers were forced to retreat, and the movement’s demands led to national forestry protection in India. This shows what women can achieve when supporting each other for the good of the environment.

The Green Belt Movement

Kenya’s Green Belt Movement is another example of female empowerment within community-led climate adaptation and mitigation approaches. The movement tackled women’s rights, as well as social, political and environmental issues in 1970s Kenya. It began when rural Kenyan women reported their streams were drying up, impacting food security and their firewood collecting commute. It has now grown into a national movement, advocating against land grabbing and agricultural encroachment into forests. The project’s success lies in maintaining its holistic and ecological focus, which had direct and clear benefits for the social lives of the women in making their own decisions to change their environment.

To sum up…

The impact of climate change on women is a complex and multifaceted issue, and elements of a person’s identity, like income, race, geography and income, also influence vulnerability. Women’s participation and leadership in climate action have generally been associated with better outcomes in resource governance, conservation, disaster readiness and more. However, top-down solutions that fail to acknowledge marginalised voices continue to be a political barrier to women’s empowerment in the climate crisis.

We must involve women’s perspectives, expertise, and needs in solutions and promote women’s leadership to tackle this crisis effectively. Community-based solutions such as the Chipko Movement or the Green Belt Movement show the brilliant outcomes women’s leadership can have in achieving and promoting positive environmental outcomes and in offering powerful ways to empower women in addressing the climate crisis. By supporting women’s leadership and fostering collaboration, we can build a more sustainable future.

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