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International Women’s Day 2024: Addressing gender inequality for a just climate future

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International Women’s Day 2024: Addressing gender inequality for a just climate future

Gender inequality, combined with the climate crisis, represents one of the most significant challenges we face today. It jeopardizes lifestyles, means of living, health, safety, and security for women and girls globally. Yet, discussions on women’s rights are often overlooked within the climate agenda. As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2024, it is crucial to address the unequal effects of climate change and explore the connections between empowering women and achieving effective, global climate action.

 

Social-Economic Burdens

 

The regions most affected by climate change are in the Global South, where women have more social responsibilities and a more integral role to play in running a family. In these settings, especially in rural communities, women and girls are disproportionately responsible for procuring food, water, and domestic energy resources. These heightened responsibilities hinder their ability to access equitable resources, particularly in the face of climate-related conflicts. Extreme weather conditions force women to dedicate more time and travel longer distances to fulfill essential roles, such as securing water and food, cooking, and doing laundry. Consequently, these demands limit women’s opportunities to pursue careers, education, or additional income, trapping them in poverty with minimal resources for escape.

 

Agricultural Dependency and Increased Workload

 

In the economies of low- and lower-middle-income nations, agriculture is a primary source of employment for women, who face escalating challenges during droughts and unpredictable rainfall. As agricultural laborers and the main gatherers of family resources, they are compelled to work harder to maintain their family’s livelihood. This situation escalates pressures on young girls, who are often required to discontinue their education to assist their mothers with the increased workload. A case in point is southern Tanzania, where variability in rainfall, diminishing soil fertility, fluctuating crop yields, and a general decline in agricultural productivity necessitate the cultivation of larger areas of land, thereby increasing the demand for labor. Furthermore, the tendency for male household members to migrate seasonally in search of non-farm employment places additional burdens on women. In the absence of these men, women are left to shoulder broader domestic responsibilities, further amplifying their workload and challenges.

 

Survival and Recovery Disparities in Disasters

 

In many disasters, especially those occurring in the Global South, a marked disparity in survival rates and injuries between women and men has been observed. This gap stems from entrenched gender inequalities that lead to differences in access to information, mobility, decision-making capabilities, and resources, including training. Consequently, women and girls find it more challenging to obtain relief and assistance in disaster aftermaths, jeopardizing their livelihoods, well-being, and recovery. This situation perpetuates a cycle of heightened vulnerability to future disasters.

 

For example, in Zimbabwe, cultural and traditional norms rooted in patriarchy significantly restrict women’s involvement in disaster risk mitigation and management. These norms prioritize men in property rights and decision-making, particularly regarding cattle, allowing men to make critical decisions about asset disposal or transfer in response to drought risks without consulting women. Climate-related disasters such as droughts, famines, floods, or disease outbreaks, along with the ensuing human displacement, escalate the risks of gender-based violence and harmful practices, including child marriage. During such crises, sexual and reproductive health needs are often neglected, leading to severe consequences like increased maternal mortality rates, child marriages, and unintended pregnancies.

 

Health Risks from Climate Change and Disasters

 

Climate change and disasters pose significant risks to the health of women and girls by restricting their access to healthcare services and increasing vulnerabilities in maternal and child health. Studies have shown that extreme heat increases incidence of stillbirth, and climate change is increasing the spread of vector-borne illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever, and Zika virus, which are linked to worse maternal and neonatal outcomes. In West Africa, Central Africa, East, and Southern Africa, encompassing 33 countries, malaria infections during pregnancy have led to 819,000 newborns with low birth weight, as reported by the World Bank. Pregnant women are three times more likely to experience severe illness from malaria than those who are not pregnant, with their mortality rate approaching nearly 50%.

 

In addition to this, women are at an increased risk of experiencing mental health issues, including depression, general anxiety disorders, shock, feelings of abandonment, and even suicidal thoughts following extreme weather events. Women more frequently develop depression due to immediate hardships and anxiety about the future, often attributed to their relatively lower capacity to handle stress, which is thought to stem from a higher sensitivity to stress hormones. The established roles and responsibilities of women within the family further exacerbate their emotional susceptibility, solidifying their position as particularly vulnerable in the face of climate-induced challenges.

 

Invisibility of Women in Climate Response

 

While women are actively engaged in addressing climate change, their contributions often go unnoticed, rendering them both omnipresent and invisible in climate response efforts. Globally, women face significant underrepresentation in politics, business, and STEM fields, and this disparity extends into the domain of climate action. In environments where decision-making is predominantly male dominated, amplifying women’s voices and addressing their specific needs becomes a formidable challenge. Despite being disproportionately affected by climate change, women occupy less than a third of leadership roles in climate negotiations, a disparity that threatens to exacerbate existing inequalities and diminish the effectiveness of climate policies and projects if implemented without substantial female involvement.

 

Contributions by women to climate mitigation are frequently underestimated or dismissed, and in some instances, men may receive credit for women’s achievements. Frontline workers in the fight against climate change, including firefighters, farmers, and rescue workers, who are women, often lack the recognition and visibility awarded to their male colleagues. This discrepancy is partly due to the traditional portrayal of these roles as male-dominated. Furthermore, in the context of climate crises, women are stereotypically cast as “victims,” a perspective that overlooks their resilience, capabilities, and contributions to climate solutions.

 

Call to Action

 

To address these challenges, it is imperative to:

  • Implement gender-sensitive legal and institutional frameworks.
  • Enhance female participation and leadership in climate actions and negotiations.
  • Develop and deploy gender-responsive adaptation and mitigation technologies.
  • Cultivate a deeper understanding of women’s vulnerabilities to climate change.
  • Provide gender-responsive financial services and support.

 

This International Women’s Day, let us commit to integrating gender equality into the heart of climate action, recognizing and supporting women’s roles as indispensable agents of change in the fight against climate change.

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