Whilst we are becoming much more aware of the likely impacts of our changing climate we tend to think of the impacts varying according to wealth, but UN research indicates that, particularly in developing countries with traditionally defined gender roles, climate change impacts most on women. Women in general are disproportionately affected by climate change as they rely more on natural resources (i.e. water, food and fuel for cooking and heating), whilst at the same time being restricted in terms of their access to natural resources and decision making. For example in developing countries women are generally responsible for collecting water to meet domestic needs, a task which is becoming more difficult and time consuming for women / girls as supplies of water become more limited and they need to search further afield; this can have a negative impact on the education of girls as they may need to miss school to complete this domestic work.
Climate change is predicted to increase the number of natural disasters, such as flooding and drought. In countries like the Philippines and Bangladesh women make up a disproportionate number of the casualties from flooding events, in part because they are less likely to know how to swim, but also because women are less well informed about impending flood warnings and shelter information (despite their common role as caregivers to children and elderly relatives). The proportion of women and children displaced by natural disasters is disproportionately high at 75%. Also disaster relief efforts often focus on men’s needs. For example, following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami assistance was made available to replace fishing boats used by the men, but relatively little support was made available to replace the fish processing tools used by women.
This is not to say of course that climate change only affects women, with a specific impact of increasing drought in parts of India leading to higher suicide rates due to difficulties in making a living from the land. Gender also continues to play a part in the different impacts within developed nations, with a study in the USA showing a 98% increase in physical victimization of women following Hurricane Katrina (domestic violence often rises following a disaster through a combination of post traumatic stress and the strains placed on families living in temporary accommodation with reduced privacy).
In recognition of the importance of gender within the impacts of climate change the United Nations has explicitly incorporated gender actions within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The 2015 Paris Agreement explicitly refers to the empowerment of women, as well as inter-generational equity, in tackling climate change. There are already many example of projects funded by the United Nations to help communities adapt:-
- In Mali solar energy technology has been made available in rural communities to help women to grind flour more quickly (a process vital for meal preparation but very time intensive traditionally). This has freed up time for women to pursue alternative activities to generate income.
- In the hillside El Augustino district of Lima, Peru, a group of 100 women have replanted 18,000 square metres of land with Tara trees (a small, leguminous plant). Not only do these plants benefit the community through their medicinal properties in treating fevers and stomach problems but also the dense root systems help to hold the soil together, thus protecting communities from the increased landslide risk caused by more intense rainfall events.