Climate and Her

By Alison Hawkes

We all know that the poor, especially in developing countries, will be hardest hit by climate change and yet they are the ones who contribute least to it. Who are the world’s poor? Well, 70 percent of them are women.

A UK group, Women’s Environmental Network, released a report this week that takes a closer look at the gender inequalities that climate change is exacerbating. Gender and the Climate Change Agenda finds that women are more likely to die or suffer from climate change related disasters, including displacement, food shortages, health problems, violence as a result of resource conflicts, and higher workloads.

Apparently a lot of it has to do with gendered social roles. There’s a flood and more women die than men because they’ve never been taught to swim. A disaster hits and women can’t access the credit needed for a recovery because of legal restrictions to land and property ownership. A home is washed away and women, as the primary caretakers of their families, have to find a means to cook and are exposed to sketchy temporary living situations that make them vulnerable to sexual harassment. A drought descends and women and girls have to walk farther and farther distances to collect water (they of course do 90 percent of the labor gathering water and wood for cooking).

The basis for some this is statistical records kept on mortality rates for women and men after extreme natural disasters – usually women come out several fold ahead. Climate change brings more extreme and frequent disasters of this sort. And it’s actually not just in the developing world. The 2003 European heat wave caused a death rate that was 75 percent higher in women, while during Hurricane Katrina 80 percent of those left in the city following the storm were women.

What’s really surprising, too, is that women are often not benefitting from climate change policy. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which finances clean tech projects in the developing world as an offset to Western emissions, usually go to large-scale industrial projects of the sort that women do not control, according to the report. Forestry carbon offset projects restrict the collection of food and wood from preserved areas, forcing women to find other, sometimes more dangerous means like prostitution, to make ends meet (that’s what has happened in the case of Mount Elgon National Park in Uganda). “Carbon trading and similar market-based mechanisms emerge from a male-dominated system and masculine model of development and economic growth,” the report states.

What to do? Clearly, it seems, gender issues need to be considered more in climate change policy. More women at the negotiating table and CDM and adaptation funds that are designed to meet the needs of women and empower them.

Adding gender to the heap of issues that climate change negotiators weigh certainly adds to the complexity of the debate. But the question is whether such efforts can be successful without women at the center.