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A Harsh Climate for Women

| July 23, 2014

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Solar Sister brings solar energy to rural areas with limited impact on the environment

Experts have been issuing warnings for years about the impact of climate change. Just this week, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that last month was the hottest June on record. Yet even with some increasing recognition of the importance of gender-sensitive approaches, there’s still relatively little public awareness that climate change has a particularly harsh impact on women.

There’s no doubt that global temperatures are on the rise due to human activity, and will continue to rise in coming decades. However, the consequences—such as extreme temperatures, increases in precipitation at higher altitudes and decreases at lower altitudes, and more intense storms—are often presented as being gender neutral. 

Cara Beasley, communications and network officer at the Global Gender and Climate Alliance (GGCA), said in an interview that international agencies working on climate change view the social aspects of the issue as “soft” as opposed to “scientific.” “From a UNFCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] perspective, climate change is seen as more of a scientific subject. The governing body doesn’t see the ‘softer’ issues, like social implications or human rights, as part of their mandate.  Although climate change impacts all of us, it’s not something that they focus on and that they really feel is theirs to address.” 

However, floods, storms, droughts, and other natural disasters caused by climate change are much more deadly for women than for men. For example, although the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami official casualty count wasn’t separated by gender, Oxfam International estimated that three times as many women died. In fact, A. Tianna Scozzaro, climate and population associate at Population Action International, said, “Women and children are fourteen times more likely to die than men during natural disasters.” In Sri Lanka, for example, boys are taught to swim and climb trees while girls generally are not, greatly reducing girls’ chance of survival during floods. Women’s childcare responsibilities also mean that they are far less mobile, and unable to escape when disasters hit. Additionally, even when public shelter is provided in the case of environmental disasters, women may forgo them to avoid physical and sexual violence, even in economically advanced countries such as the United States and Australia—again lowering their chances of surviving.

The Human Development Index reported that poor people in developing nations are particularly hard-hit by climate change. The direst effects are deforestation, water scarcity, and land degradation, which disproportionately affect the poor living in rural areas. Women in these countries are dependent on local natural resources for their livelihoods, and climate change has consequences such as food insecurity from loss of biodiversity, reduced income potential, and loss of shelter.

Gender plays a large part in how men and women interact with the environment. According to ENERGIA, the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy, which operates in Asia and Africa, “Women bear the invisible burden of the human energy crisis—women's time and effort in water pumping, agricultural processing, and transport.”

Scozzaro adds, “Women account for 70 percent of those living below the poverty line, globally. Poverty compromises one's ability to recover from natural disasters, compensate for agricultural losses due to climate disruption, and take care of one's family needs, [making] a mother’s job more difficult.”

Even though women interact with the earth—gathering firewood, fetching water—far more than men, they are largely left out decision-making processes, and not only in the domestic sphere. ENERGIA points out that women, especially those in rural areas, lack access to credit and land training, and therefore find it difficult to make their voices heard and have their needs met. According to the World Bank, “in developing economies women are 20 percent less likely than men to have an account at a formal financial institution.... Even if they can gain access to a loan, women often lack access to other financial services, such as savings, digital payment methods, and insurance.”

Women’s expertise is often overlooked in writing and implementing policy. Research done by the Institute for Development Studies and ActionAid in 2006, for example, showed that a well in Kilombero, Tanzania, dried up shortly after it had been drilled— its location had been decided by the men in the village, rather than the women, who had much greater knowledge of the land.

On an international scale, exclusion has even greater consequences. At the 2007 UNFCCC conference in Bali, women made up only 28 percent of attendees and only 12 percent of heads of delegations, meaning their voices are conspicuously absent in a discussion about something that affects them the most—which in turn leads to inadequate international and domestic policy.

However, organizations such as Solar Sister are working to address climate change in ways that directly affect rural women. The organization works in Uganda, Nigeria, and Tanzania to eradicate practices that are harmful for both women and the environment. In the developing world, where 70 percent of the world’s women live, lack of electricity access means that women and girls spend hours a day collecting wood for burning, and use kerosene lanterns. Solar Sister provides women with the capital and technical knowledge to start small businesses selling solar power, giving women access to the energy they need to use in their day-to-day lives in a way that limits its impact on the environment.

When asked if small-scale projects like Solar Sister can have a real impact on issues faced by women, Beasely said, “Yes and no. No in the fact as it stands today, you may not be seeing a far-reaching impact. But what is great about Solar Sister’s grassroots movement is that it’s something that’s working in the communities. [Movements like this] are gaining momentum and making a difference through capacity-building and leadership initiatives. Although there may not be a far-reaching impact today, they are an example of what could work.”

Despite the challenges, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, and research networks have the power to bring a gendered perspective to the public conversation surrounding climate change, and make a real impact in the lives of the women most affected.

“People don’t lead their lives in silos. They need clean water, schools for their kids, and sustainable livelihoods. What is good for women and their families,” said Scozzaro, “is often also good for forests, lakes, and the planet.” 

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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