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The Dark Side: The Impact of Climate Change on Women

With every passing day, women are being increasingly recognized as more vulnerable to the negative impacts of natural or human-made disasters that are plaguing the world. Covid-19 is a case in point. We have seen how it has exposed and exacerbated inequalities, poverty, and violence against women and girls, and limited their access to employment, health, and education, and brought about disproportionate socio-economic repercussions. 

These implications, together with the challenge to achieve work-family balance, the closure of schools, and the loss of female-dominated jobs lowered women’s resilience to withstand the consequences of environment and climate crises and resulted in lower participation of women in the workforce. According to data from the UN Women, nearly 113 million women with partners and children aged 25-54 dropped out of the workforce in 2020. 

Today gender inequalities persist when it comes to vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. The United Nations statement made on the International Women’s Day in March 2022, indicated that women “represent a high percentage of poor communities that are highly dependent on threatened local natural resources.” Climate change gives rise to more gender-based violence because women around the world “shoulder the major responsibility for household water supply and energy for cooking and heating” and with climate change, these responsibilities become more time-consuming, requiring women to travel longer to get the drinking water and wood for fuel, which may make them more vulnerable to violence, particularly given the growing risks related to human trafficking and child marriage and lack of access to resources needed to protect them from gender-based violence.

Why Are Women More Vulnerable to the Effects of Climate Change?

Poverty: Perhaps women being the most affected by climate change could be attributed to the higher rates of poverty among them. For every 100 men aged 25-34 living in extreme poverty (living on $1.90 or less per day), there are 118 women, a gap that is expected to increase to 121 women per 100 men by 2030. Worse, Covid-19 may push an additional 47 million women to extreme poverty. According to a study by the UN Women and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), there would be a 9.1 per cent increase in the poverty rate for women by 2030 and 160 million children are likely to remain threatened by extreme poverty.

Social Justice: In many societies, women’s role is generally confined to childcare and providing water and food for the family. This comes in tandem with limiting their access to education and employment, and if they are allowed to work, they are usually given particular jobs with no safety precautions, e.g. working in fields. Besides, women may be denied access to the right to own land, preventing them from ensuring a source of income for themselves and their family. Although these societies are more vulnerable to natural disasters, women in these communities are prohibited from obtaining physical training, e.g. swimming and tree climbing that would help them cope with rising sea levels or riding cattle to survive floods.

Inevitably, these restrictions result in higher deaths of women and children in natural disasters. According to a study from the GenderCC-Women for Climate Justice organization on the unfair effects of climate change on women, the rate of women and girls affected by climate change and the ensuing natural disasters is 14 times higher than that of men. For example, the number of women killed by the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia was three times the number of men deaths, given their inability to swim compared to men. The study also found that floods bring about more problems for women where girls, who lost their parents, are forced into marriage. Additionally, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of violent incidents and rapes against women following these natural disasters.

The Limited Involvement of Women in Efforts to Combat Climate Change

Despite the increasing representation of women in efforts to combat climate change, being among the groups most affected by it, the percentage of their representation is still low.  According to a report by Deutsche Villa entitled, “Women in the Face of Climate Change”, women account for only a third of the delegates participating in world climate conferences and only one out of five delegations is headed by a woman. This has been persistent over the past five years. Another study entitled “Women in the UN climate negotiations” found that the more a country is affected by climate change, the lower the representation of women in its delegations to UN climate negotiations.

Implications of Climate Change for Women

  • Health

Repercussions of climate change extend to affect the individuals’ health, with differing negative impacts on males and females according to the country and the income level. According to the August 2021 report of the United Nations Population Fund, women and girls are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts, as they account for a high percentage of poor communities and usually bear the major burden of bringing water, food, and other essential supplies to their families.

Alongside this, they are denied access to adequate health care services, including sexual and reproductive health services, family planning, as well as educational services, undermining their lives and the lives of their families and communities. Things are even worse in difficult humanitarian situations, such as climate disasters, where forced displacement and migration further exacerbate the injustices experienced by women and girls, placing them at greater risk of rape, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and exploitation as a result of the disruption of basic protection and police services, which makes them less able to cope with the impacts of climate change.

  • Food Security

As per the OHCHR study on gender-responsive climate action, pregnant and breastfeeding women are especially vulnerable to food insecurity caused by climate change. Additionally, rising sea levels increase salinity, which may give rise to premature births and maternal and newborn deaths. The overwhelming risks to land, water, organisms, and livelihoods greatly affect women who work in fields or depend on ecosystems to support their families.

  • Safe Work

The negative implications of climate change include the depletion of resources and the destruction of infrastructure, which increases unemployment rates and widens the workplace gender gap. Under normal circumstances, women already face obstacles in obtaining safe work for an adequate salary, and these opportunities may not exist in times of disaster. Accordingly, as per the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2019, female-headed households may find it difficult to obtain humanitarian assistance or benefit from disaster recovery programs, which usually target the head of the household (the man).

  • Gender-Based Violence

According to the UN 2018 estimates, 80 percent of those displaced as a result of climate change were women. Displaced women are, thus, exposed to major risks of beating, kidnapping, abusing of their children, and violent sexual assaults that result in unwanted pregnancies. Usually, rapes are the price displaced women pay to complete their migration without them being killed or their children kidnapped, or even to be able to get food and water, in the absence of social protection systems, let alone the cases where food insecurity is associated with impunity for perpetrators of violence and the absence of institutions and law enforcement.

The OHCHR study on gender-responsive climate action indicated that the economic constraints caused by disasters and climate change may lead to child, early, and forced marriage as coping strategies.

In view of the above, it becomes necessary that countries adopt woman-sensitive climate policies, while working on enacting supportive legal frameworks that establish women-sensitive climate change policies. Moreover, there is a need to consider setting a “quota” for women in climate change control committees and raise awareness of the dangers of climate change and protection and coexistence methods for women, especially in developing countries that are most vulnerable to climate change.

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