How does climate change intersect with gender inequality?

5 mins read

Climate change and its effects are not gender neutral: they do multiply existing threats, making women and girls face increased vulnerabilities

Climate change is accelerating and impacting more and more communities around the world, with the worst consequences already being experienced in countries of the Global South. More and more data and research reveal its affecting individuals in different ways, mostly depending on their vulnerability in the broader society in relation to a range of factors including gender, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and disability. Indeed, the most fragile and marginalized groups are found to have limited protection, response and resilience strategies to its effects.

In particular, women and girls are extremely vulnerable to the consequences of increased resource scarcity and natural disasters due to their socioeconomic status, political marginalization and discriminatory cultural norms in countries affected by these phenomena.

Assuming that gender norms and power dynamics determine a variety of issues that fundamentally affect women’s and girls’ lives – household or community expectations, natural resources related roles, economic opportunities, physical mobility, decision-making power –, climate change hazards amplifies existing gender inequalities and exacerbates drivers of social, physical and economic insecurity that they have limited ability to prevent and respond to. As a consequence, the increased insecurity they experience further undermine their adaptive capacity to climate change dangers: the climate trap is at work.

As a matter of fact, women are the most dependent on, despite having less access to, natural resource. Indeed, the responsibility of providing for the basic needs of the family makes women’s activities more reliant upon natural resources such as water, food and fuel. Suffice it to say that women are responsible for water collection in 80% of households without access to drinking water, while agriculture is the sector where women find the greatest employment in low- and lower-middle income countries.

As these resources become scarcer, women experience an increase in workload along with a consequent increase in risks related to their safety. Women are forced, for example, to travel longer distances to retrieve what they need, which not only makes these activities more time-consuming but also puts them at greater risk of harassment and violence. Increased workloads can also lead to girls being withdrawn from schools to help out at home, reducing their future opportunities.

In addition, crop failures due to prolonged periods of drought or extreme rainfall can lead to selective malnutrition or starvation of girls and women. Also, women and girls face greater health and safety risks as water and sanitation systems become compromised.

Also, natural disasters have fundamental gender implications: as a matter of fact, they result in higher casualties and injuries among women, a trend that is more pronounced the more violent the disaster. Women and girls suffer from a lack of information, restrictions on mobility, and limited access to training that makes them extremely vulnerable to natural disasters.

For example, according to an Oxfam survey, over 70% of the victims of the 2004 tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia were women. If men, in fact, are taught to swim and climb trees at a young age, this does not happen with women.

Similarly, Hurricane Katrina, which hit the United States in 2005, predominantly affected African American women.

Despite their more vulnerable situation, women and girls often fail to express their specific needs by not having a voice in decision-making processes. Their lack of participation exacerbates inequalities and prevents women from fully contributing to the planning and implementation of climate change management policies.

However, women can – and do – play a crucial role thanks to their knowledge and leadership in sustainable resource management at the household and community levels. There is a need, therefore, for policies and projects to be implemented with meaningful participation by women – and all social groups – which can increase effectiveness and decrease existing inequalities.