The Feminisation of Climate Change
How the Climate Crisis is disproportionately affecting women in the Global South
The sunrise over the plains of Sub-Saharan Africa calls Radha's aching body to begin her long and exhausting day. She starts by gathering firewood from the heap she collected in the days before, prodding the chulha to get a fire going. The black smoke is heavy in her lungs, and the constant coughing makes her eyes water. After that, she bathes and performs her daily prayer to Lord Indra for more rainfall that year. She offers an extra lotus flower as a bribe.
Her lengthy journey to the river seems futile. The stream has been dwindling for the past few years and the villagers have begun to look for new water sources farther away. Gossip of other’s women’s failed harvest surrounds the river as they fill their pots with cloudy water; months of labour in the fields had gone to waste as a new kind of pest that multiplies with increasing temperatures had destroyed her and nearly half the village’s crop.
It is undeniable that the sufferings from climate change are unequal. People like Radha, a woman living in one of the most impoverished parts of the world, are exposed to the ugliest effects that the climate crisis has to offer. Studies indicate that women in the global south are responsible for up to 75% of household food production. Their role in society is to almost single-handedly bear the responsibilities of entire households' livelihoods - including their food, harvest, and fuel - but the natural resources they depend on for this are rapidly dwindling, and there are no alternatives. In most developing regions, women struggle to survive under harsh environmental and societal conditions that hinder them from taking on social, economic, or political decisions. Reinforced gender roles that have been passed down through centuries of political and religious norms have taken on a new, disfiguring face in the time of the climate crisis, and are now disadvantaging poor women in unimaginable ways. They are facing a different version of climate change than we are; they are facing insurmountable struggles that they had no hand in creating.
The fact that women make up 43% of the agricultural labour force in the South, despite suffering unequal access, control, and ownership of critical natural resources like land, livestock, water; and development resources like credit and agricultural technologies and education, are the results of centuries of chronic institutional misogyny in the political systems of these countries. Despite being the primary caretakers of these resources, women like Radha are cast as 'incapable' of making important decisions concerning them. They are trapped in the patriarchal mindset of traditional societies that refuse to accept the notion of a female 'household head' or 'owner' of land. Even as weather patterns rapidly change and temperatures rise unpredictably, women are forced to travel greater distances to gather resources such as fodder, fuelwood, and water. Production schedules are disturbed, and more labor-intensive care is required to protect economically important crops against new species of invasive pests. This leads to longer, acute working days for women, ultimately taking a toll on their health and well-being. Similarly, the burden of cooking, cleaning, and nurturing children falls almost entirely on women in developing countries who lack necessary access to gynecological health and contraceptive education on top of everything else. As food shortages become more pronounced, women tend to work more to secure household livelihoods, leaving them with less time and opportunity to go to school or develop skills that lend greater income-earning ability. Radha's failed crop harvest and the consequent inability to pay for her daughter's education reinforce this patriarchal system of unpaid labor and oppression, which has only been heightened by the impacts of climate change.
In Zanzibar, Khadija is the only girl in a family with three brothers, but she does not know how to swim. Conservative Islamic culture and the absence of modest swimwear, which she cannot afford, are the key reasons for this. She is not allowed to go anywhere alone, the clothing she must wear is restrictive, and if a cyclonic storm or flood hits her town, she will not be able to save herself, but her brothers will. They will know how to climb trees and swim to safety, and they might also be more knowledgeable about why the frequency of natural disasters is increasing in countries like theirs. Droughts from changing weather patterns and depleting water sources often pose major challenges for health and sanitation. Once again, women, who are physically weakened from the labor-intensive work of maintaining entire families' livelihoods, are more likely to die from illness resulting from these challenges.
Despite these heightened vulnerabilities, women have been seen as active and effective agents of transformation. Since centuries, women have developed pools of indigenous wisdom that have the power to amplify climate adaptation and mitigation efforts by several folds. Using knowledge about water harvesting and storage, food preservation and rationing, and sustainable natural resource management to name a few, women have sustained not only themselves but entire tribes in the face of adverse climatic conditions. Martha Agbani, a Yaataah woman in the Niger Delta region, helped her community use their centuries old knowledge of mangrove restoration and biodiversity preservation to replace Nipa palm trees – a foreign species introduced by oil companies - with indigenous mangroves that sequester carbon and protect the shoreline against floods. This also reinstated economically critical crustacean habitats, demonstrating how, using nature-based solutions and indigenous knowledge, women can not only protect the environment but also restore human livelihoods.
Women need to be at the heart of climate change adaptation programs that must address the full range of challenges related to gender inequities -- a three-pronged approach where finance, social action, and technology culminate to create visible and lasting change. Combining indigenous agricultural knowledge passed down for generations with innovative green technology can be a game-changer in this regard. Agrivoltaic solutions, for instance, have been known to have multifold benefits. They are a stellar example of how the land-use conflict between renewables (solar panels, in this case) and agriculture can be turned into a sustainable, profitable opportunity. They achieve true synergy with nature by simultaneously targeting problems like food security, water scarcity, energy access, and carbon emissions, thereby relieving a significant burden off the shoulders of women agricultural workers.
Just as important is the necessity to mitigate the harmful effects of cooking – a duty borne almost entirely by women. In Vietnam, Hoang Thi To uses GreenGen’s cookstove, it is more convenient, time-efficient, and requires half the amount of firewood as cooking over an open fire. She uses the time gained from using these cooking resources for farming and planting grape trees as a new business opportunity. Her lungs feel significantly less burdened. Cookstove projects that encourage the use of clean biofuels for cooking and heating have helped millions of women by alleviating adverse health impacts while simultaneously preventing the release of harmful pollutants in smoke that aggravate the effects of climate change.
While there is no dearth of innovative solutions to adapt to climate change, it is impossible to use them to their maximum potential without involving women in the ownership and decision-making process at all levels. Currently, only 0.01% of funding worldwide supports projects that address both climate and women’s rights. Adaptation programs need to be molded in a way that promotes leadership among women. This means that necessary education, training, and confidence-building must be disseminated among women communities at a mass scale to create lasting change. But what is equally important is the need to educate the male population on the comprehensive benefits of this inclusive system. It is also critical that these programs be adapted with specific regard to the geography and culture of different regions. Herein comes the role of data collection and dissemination. On the one hand, it is necessary that data about crop sensitivities, soil composition, weather-related information, groundwater levels, and rainfall reach women so that adaptation activities can be properly planned. On the other hand, it is important that gender-disaggregated data on climate change impacts be fed into policy design for a more directed adaptation effort.
The Adaptation Learning Programme for Africa (ALP) is a success story that has championed a gender-sensitive adaptation effort. It adopts strategies like setting up village savings and loans groups that promote investments by women in non-climate-sensitive livelihoods or provide a buffer in times of climate shocks. They provide imperative education to women in economical farming that also helps them protect their livelihoods from the effects of climate change. The ALP also enables the integration of adaptation into local government planning, thus contributing to the economic, social, and political empowerment of women in the poorest regions of Sub-Saharan Africa.
It is initiatives like these that need to be implemented globally - policy action and private investments that champion gender-sensitive climate adaptation, promoting the leadership and decision-making power of women, and increasing access and ownership to land, education, credit, and sophisticated agricultural tools. There are so many weapons in the armory that can be used to help women facing the double-edged sword of the climate crisis in a patriarchal society, and it is imperative that we deploy them now to effectively make the changes needed to save women like Radha, Hoang Thi To, Martha Agbani, Khadija, and billions of others just like them from the cruel hand we have complicitly dealt them.