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Why climate change is sexist

Climate change is a universal issue, but those who are suffering the most are also those who have contributed the least to the problem.

Women and girls are already paying the high price of global inaction, doing their best to survive and adapt to climate change because their lives and their families depend on it.

Dr Mayesha Alam, an expert on the unfolding climate crisis, is a Senior Fellow at United Nations University Centre for Policy Research. She walks us through the lived experiences of women on the front line of climate change and how some of them are leading the way on climate action.

Warning: This article contains mentions of and statistics related to gender-based violence and human trafficking.

Hazards of climate change such as extreme drought, floods and displacement are costing lives and livelihoods and doing disproportionate harm to women and girls. These harms can be measured by rising levels of child marriage, surges in gender-based violence, the number of girls withdrawn from school and casualty rates during extreme weather events.

'I think that the link between gender and climate change is not necessarily obvious to most people,' says Mayesha. 'In all societies, women and girls are like the canary in the coal mine - you can tell a lot about the health and stability of a society based on the quality of life for women.

'Women and girls are some of the most vulnerable categories of people who are having not only to confront the adverse effects of climate change but really adapt their lives to cope with it.'

These women are also highly resourceful innovators, doing amazing work to manage, adapt and even repair environmental damage done by rich industrial nations.

'They are the front line of the fight against climate change and leaving them out of the conversation is a missed opportunity both for effective policy design and actually addressing climate change,' she adds.

Why does climate change disproportionately affect women and girls?

'Wherever you live, gender affects virtually every aspect of our lives, whether it's the jobs we hold, the political office we seek or our experience of human rights,' explains Mayesha. 'The same is, and will be, true of our experience of climate change.

'Most of the world's poor, and in fact the world's poorest, are women and girls. Women are statistically more likely to live in poverty than men and have less access to education and vocational opportunities.'

Mayesha adds, 'The disproportionate impact of climate change has to do with structural barriers that hold women back, such as the ability to inherit or own property or assets. Many women lack the legal identity documents required to open a bank account, participate in politics or even receive aid.'

Women face these issues across much of the globe but particularly in the Global South, where we are also seeing the majority of climate change-related extreme weather events.

Where is the Global South?

The Global South includes Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Pacific Islands and parts of Asia and the Middle East.

Impacts of climate change on women

Wherever women and girls face climate change without an adequate social safety net, the situation is undeniably grim.

Drought

Drought is one of several extreme weather events intensified by climate change.

This is happening in Africa, south Asia and southeast Asia, and even in the USA and Australia. But it's women and girls in the Global South who are paying the highest price.

About 90% of the world's farms are small holdings (under five acres in size). These family-run farms, which are mostly in the Global South, feed a substantial proportion of the planet's population.

A girl flicks water onto a field from a bucket

In Mali, a young girl distributes water in a parched cabbage field © Riccardo Mayer/ Shutterstock

'Most of the world's smallholder farmers are women who lack legal rights to the land they farm,' explains Mayesha. 'When severe droughts hit, these women may become unable to work the land that they rely on to feed their families and earn a living.'

Infographic showing the disparity of women's food production relative to land ownership

Women produce 50-80% of the world's food but own less than 10% of the land. Source.

This has additional knock-on impacts. 'We know from decades of observing these dynamics that it is girls who are either pulled out of school to help on the farm or married off, to alleviate that economic burden,' adds Mayesha.

'Parents generally want what's best for their children. However, if your income is sharply declining and you can't feed the mouths under your roof, then these tough choices become a kind of coping mechanism.

'On the other hand, research also shows that keeping girls in school and enabling them to complete their education correlates with better adaptation to climate change.'

Water scarcity and gender-based violence

In many communities around the world, women and girls are tasked with acquiring clean water for their household for activities such as cooking, cleaning and bathing.

Two girls carry water containers on their heads as they walk down a dusty path

Schoolgirls walk long distances to collect water © Riccardo Mayer/ Shutterstock

During periods of prolonged drought, they often travel for several hours each day to collect water for their families.

'The farther they have to travel, the less time they can spend on education, vocation or other productive opportunities,' says Mayesha. 'Travelling long distances through areas affected by conflict and violence also increases their exposure to the risk of violence.'

In June 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) published a report for policy makers showing that climate change worsens many forms of gender-based violence. 

Extreme weather events

Women and girls are also statistically much more likely to be killed during extreme weather events such as floods, tsunamis or typhoons. There are a few reasons for this.

Mayesha explains, 'First, in many communities around the world, women and girls do not have the opportunity to learn how to swim - and if you don't know how to swim, you are a lot less likely to survive if a flood hits.'

Even if a woman can swim, studies have shown that the type of work women do also makes them less likely to survive.

Oxfam reported that during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, fishermen from fishing villages in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka were more likely to survive than women who were caring for family members at home or waiting for the boats to come in.

These trends don't only apply in the Global South, either.

'Even in Japan, when the tsunami hit in 2011, the evidence shows that women and girls were far more likely to be casualties,' says Mayesha.

Dangers of displacement

Women who survive extreme weather events also face unique challenges and dangers during displacement.

Mayesha explains, 'When homes are destroyed by floods or coastal erosion and people are forced to migrate due to climate change, the risks that women and girls face while they are displaced are also disproportionate and unique. Amongst them is sexual violence, exploitation and abuse, and human trafficking.'

It is also a lot harder to move if you're accompanied by older people or children for whom you are the primary caregiver.

Men are less likely to be in caring roles and more likely to have access to identity documents, vehicles and vocational training, allowing them to relocate faster and more efficiently.

A wake-up call for the developed world

Mayesha believes climate change migration is an issue the Global North will soon be facing as well.

She says, 'It isn't just an issue affecting low-lying islands that are going to cease to exist, such as Pacific Island nations and the Maldives. Indonesia is currently in the process of relocating a capital of about 11 million people, specifically because of climate change. Jakarta is literally sinking, and I don't think this is going to be unique.

'Relocation of densely populated urban communities is an issue that the Netherlands is going to face, as will the USA, among others.

'In advanced economies, the social safety net may be much more robust than it is in developing economies, but I promise you that one of the big challenges we're going to face - regardless of where we live - is that these places weren't designed with the extremes of climate change in mind.

It will be important that plans for redevelopment and adaptation take different viewpoints and climate justice into account, to ensure they are effective.

Mayesha explains, 'From a gender equality perspective, we need to make sure that the plans we put in place consider the very different lived experiences of men and women in adapting to climate change and ensure women are in a position to shape those conversations alongside men.'

Role models from the front lines

Women in the Global South are working hard to adapt, survive and solve the problems foisted on them by rich industrial nations. For Mayesha, these women are a great source of hope.

Three women planting seeds in pots

Kiharu Kahuro Women's Group prepare tree seedlings © Green Belt Movement

She says, 'Women, especially in marginalised communities, have been confronting these issues for a long time and have had to adapt with very little support. What's key is building their ability to withstand the shocks and stresses of climate change in the long term.

'There are several indigenous knowledge-driven organisations which use local women's leadership and expertise at a global level. One of my favourite examples is Prof Wangari Maathai who founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and was the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. She combined environmental conservation, sustainable development and democracy to transform communities.'

Lots of small trees in pots, arranged in rows

Green Belt Movement tree nursery © Green Belt Movement

Reforestation helps reduce the severity of climate change and combats poverty and hunger by empowering smallholder farmers in the process. The Green Belt Movement has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya since it was founded in 1977 and has since set its sights on restoring the degraded Sahel region - an 8,000-kilometre-wide stretch of land across the African continent.

Grameen Shakti is the renewable energy platform of the Grameen Foundation, which originated in Bangladesh and has since spread across the globe. They supply renewable energy technology to rural households, which reduces pollution from biofuels (firewood and coal). This empowers women who would otherwise spend many hours a day gathering biofuels and who are now able to devote more time to education. Many receive training in solar energy systems, accessing careers in the renewable energy sector.

To date, Grameen Shakti has installed 1.8 million solar home systems, benefiting 12 million people and empowering countless women in the process.

Mayesha says, 'Thanks to digital technologies, there is an increasing sharing of knowledge and expertise between women around the world. Indigenous women's groups in South America are sharing with women's civil society networks in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

'They come together, despite lacking many resources or high-level political backing, to find localised solutions and share expertise and knowledge about the problems they are facing.'

A woman in an orange sari sets up a small solar panel

A solar engineer installing a solar panel on the roof of a rural house in Rajasthan, India © PradeepGaurs/ Shutterstock

Mayesha adds, 'These small, innovative, community-driven solutions are really important. But although they are doing excellent work, alone they aren't going to change the scale of the climate threat we face.

'That has to come from the topmost leaders backing up their words with resources and creating timelines and sticking to plans to build resilience. And they need to do it in an inclusive way that also advances equality and equity.'

Climate change is overwhelming - what can I do?

Climate change can feel overwhelming, but there are many ways you can be part of the solution.

'I think feeling overwhelmed or anxious means that you care,' says Mayesha. 'But my hope is that you do not become paralysed by inaction.

'I hope concern galvanises into action on your part - whether that's becoming better informed, making climate conscious choices in your home, engaging in activism efforts, supporting organisations that support gender-responsive climate action, or even pursuing careers that allow you to be part of the next vanguard of problem solvers and innovators.

'And ultimately - if you are lucky enough to live in a democracy - vote, exercise your voice in terms of the leaders you pick and the issues you advocate for, and hold your elected leaders accountable.'

Want to hear more from Dr Mayesha Alam? Watch In Conversation: Climate Migration, recorded for the Climate Crisis Film Festival in November 2021.