As we celebrate Women’s Day this year, perhaps the biggest global challenge women face is climate change. Nobel Laureate, Dr Wangari Maathai, notes, women in developing countries are going to be at the forefront of this battle. This is compounded by multiple deprivations such as poverty and food insecurity, given that 70% of those living on less than USD$ 1 a day are women.
High barriers to finance, land and technology mean women continue to be disproportionately affected. Policy action is quintessential. But beyond the narratives of oppression, Women’s Day offers a chance to appreciate women as change agents, leading the global climate battle and pioneering adaptation techniques.
Women face high climate risk, given poor health conditions, low capabilities such as the inability to swim and inadequate access to essential health and education services. For example, the biggest victims of natural disasters and public health hazards like air pollution continue to be women.
Moreover, resource scarcity and climate stress contribute to women’s vulnerability as they spend additional hours making precarious journeys to collect water or wood. Resource scarcity and food insecurity often come at the cost of girls’ education as girls leave school to assist with household chores, risking their health in doing so.
Climate change also poses challenges to women’s livelihoods. For example, women face high exposure to climate hazards as they are responsible for 60-80% of agriculture in developing countries. Moreover, researchers found that female-led businesses in Sub-Saharan Africa have barriers to building resilience due to poor access to technology.
Natural disasters such as bushfires and droughts also exacerbate the risk of domestic violence against women in rural areas. As discussed in this article, in the aftermath of climate-induced conflicts, poor social security and lack of legal recognition excludes women from relief provisions like credit, insurance, healthcare or employment.
Another challenge women face is climate-induced migration. For example, young migrant women are often exploited and abused as found in the case of Bangladeshi and Nepali girls seeking work in India. There is also a cost for women who are left in rural areas. For example, in Bangladesh, most male family members were unable or simply unwilling to send money back to their households, leaving the women to find other means of survival during these periods of migration.
Whilst this discussion merely touches the tip of the iceberg, it highlights the need for policy action. For instance, the impacts of climate-induced migration on women require immediate attention. This is currently not even being monitored by government agencies in South Asia. Action Aid recommends a pre-emptive approach, empowering women through training “in disaster preparedness strategies, including early warning systems, search and rescue, emergency response and relief distribution.”
As the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, notes in his 2020 Women’s Day speech, “without women’s leadership and full participation, we will never achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or defeat climate change.” The intersectionality between achieving development goals and combating climate change needs to be recognised. This approach requires a further step: viewing women as more than victims, rather as change agents, driving this agenda.
From teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg to Eunice Foote, the scientist who first demonstrated effects of CO2 on global temperatures, there is no shortage of women climate heroes. They all, however, have faced opposition. Thunberg has overcome vitriol hurled by the US President Donald Trump, inspiring a movement of Young US Conservatives, who aim to integrate climate policy in the Republican Party. Foote’s findings were ignored by the international community, and regrettably attributed to a man, who reproduced her results subsequently.
Numerous studies indicate that not only are women more concerned about climate change, they are also more likely to take action, from sustainable food choices (e.g. veganism) to greater resilience at the household level.
Notably, women climate activism is a global phenomenon, crossing race and class divisions. For example, closer home, Women’s Squad, a community of women in Barishal, Bangladesh, are finding climate solutions at the local scale to benefit their businesses and families. Women are also using their ICT skills, leveraging big data and Fintech as catalysts for climate action. This is demonstrated UNEP Young Champion of the Earth, Sonika Manandhar, who created a Green Energy Mobility platform to help Nepali women own electric minibuses through low-interest financing.
Despite the increasing media attention, women’s climate ideas don’t always translate to policy solutions. Licypriya Kangujam, the young climate activist and winner of the World Children Peace Prize, recently shunned the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, arguing that women’s views don’t just need to be honoured, but their voices must be heard and proposals implemented by policymakers.
For example, Swayam Shikshan Prayog, an NGO, has enabled more than 60,000 rural women entrepreneurs to start businesses in clean energy and sustainable agriculture. This gives women ownership of policy action. Global grassroots movements include one million women, a movement pioneered by Natalie Isaacs, the author of Every woman’s guide to save the planet.
At the international level, whilst women have been key players in climate policymaking as seen in Christiana Figueres’ pivotal role in negotiating the Paris Agreement, women’s overall participation remains limited, especially in areas like climate finance.
Ultimately, in the words of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, a polycentric approach is needed. This includes women and men, of all ages, countries and walks of life, coming together to take climate action. Be it planting a tree or marching on the streets, we all have a role to play in protecting Mother Earth.