Why Climate Change is a Feminist issue

By Samira Rauner

At least since 2018, when Greta Thunberg began the global strike movement ‘Fridays for Future’ and Extinction Rebellion held demonstrations which brought London to a standstill, people have started to wake up to the threat posed by climate change. However, whilst climate change burdens us all, women are uniquely vulnerable.

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka argues that women living in low-income countries are disproportionately affected by climate change, stating that “climate change amplifies existing gender inequalities in the world”. For instance, during the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, an estimated three to four times more women died than men – but how can this gendered impact be explained?

The physical impact of climate change on women

Agriculture is particularly susceptible to climate change since agricultural productivity is dependent on specific climatic conditions. Changes in temperature, rainfall and seasonality all threaten farmers livelihoods. These climatic changes have been more extreme on the African continent, where women are responsible for producing 90% of the food supply. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that women’s vulnerability to climate change is more extreme.

When water scarcity occurs, men tend to leave their communities in search of other sources of income. Women are often left behind and assume the responsibilities of the man, becoming the head of the household. However, since women rarely have access to the same educational and economic resources, they are often not granted the same authority in the community. Depending on the country, discriminatory laws and customs may also prohibit women from acquiring or owning land or livestock without the guardianship of a man. During the 2011 East African drought, many communities in Kenya experienced the outmigration of men. The women left behind were undercut by discriminatory laws and had little access to resources. Consequently, many women found themselves in precarious nutritional and economic conditions. To look after their family and themselves, they often had to resort to petty trade and prostitution, in turn increasing their risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Climate disasters such as droughts can also have a very different, but by no means less profound impact on women. Collectively, women spend around 140 million hours per day collecting water, travelling longer distances when water scarcity occurs. This increases the risk of sexual violence for women and girls, particularly in countries already experiencing conflicts, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or South Sudan. As it is the women who are responsible for collecting water, it is also them who are more at risk of contracting mosquito-borne diseases when sea-levels rise. In Cotonou, Benin, the rise in sea level has led to the development of mosquito breeding grounds, increasing the risk of a resurgence of endemic tropical diseases such as malaria. Though these diseases can affect everyone, women who collect water are more exposed, particularly during climate disasters.

Displacement has unique risks for women

As well as the disproportionate physical impact of climate change on women, forced displacement is becoming increasing common due to more frequent and extreme climate disasters. With 17 years being the average duration for displacement, and most refugees living in camps, women and girls particularly suffer from the lack of privacy, the high risk of sexual and gender-based violence, and human trafficking.

Accounting for the overwhelming majority of the displaced population, women and girls living in refugee camps often resort to smugglers or trading sex with border guards in order to reach a country of safety. However, once the women have settled, life does not necessarily get easier: venturing outside the camps in search of water or firewood is generally associated with a risk of being attacked or raped, whilst women settling in urban areas often live with the threat of arrest and deportation. Making up the majority of people living in poverty, women in low-income countries suffer disproportionately from the impact of climate change – but this tendency can also be observed in high-income countries too. For instance, while women account for 54% of the population of New Orleans, during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, they made up about 80% of the people left behind to fend for themselves. This can be explained by the high number of women living below the poverty line (25% compared to 14.5% nationally), and subsequently many women lacked the resources to leave the city. So, although women’s vulnerabilities to climate change in low-income countries are more extreme, this gender gap in vulnerabilities exists world-wide.

Women are underrepresented in decision-making positions

The gendered impacts of climate change can be traced back to the systematic marginalization of women from political and economic power, and their underrepresentation in policy-making positions. For example, in agriculture, despite the fact that women account for 43% of the agricultural force worldwide, supplying 90% of food on the African continent alone, they hold a very small minority of the global decision-making positions. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, in the European Union women only hold around one quarter of climate-change-related decision-making positions. This chronic underrepresentation exacerbates the gender gap in vulnerabilities to climate changes since policies and interventions are being designed and implemented without consideration for the specific challenges women face.

This gender gap was recently highlighted by the UN Climate Change summit COP26, when the British Government announced that they were fielding an all-male team to host the conference. Though they argued that 45% of their team were female, women were employed at a more junior level on subsections of the negotiations. In response, an open letter addressed to the UK government was signed by over 400 female climate change leaders, advocating for gender equality and greater transparency.

British actress and entrepreneur Lily Cole advocates that having more women in political leadership roles means a country is more likely to enact positive environmental policies. Supporting Cole, a study examining the impact of women’s participation in community forest governance in India and Nepal found that having women in decision-making positions had a positive impact on forest regeneration.

When examining why climate change is a feminist issue, it is impossible to disregard how the various manifestations of climate change like water scarcity or salinization affect women disproportionately. This gender gap in vulnerabilities to climate change is a consequence of existing gender equality and equity issues in society. Women are systematically marginalized every day, and being chronically underrepresented in policy-making positions, their unique perspectives are suppressed, and with-it opportunities to contribute to more gender-equal policies. Climate change is a feminist issue. By including more women in research, policy design, and decision-making processes we can reduce the gender gap in vulnerabilities and empower women whilst simultaneously combating climate change.

Graphic courtesy of Nahal Sheikh