nepal earthquake
By Telesha Mahadeo, Staff Editor 27 June 2019

By Telesha Mahadeo, Staff Editor

The detrimental impact of climate change has gained notoriety due to observable effects on the world’s oceans, biodiversity and ecosystems, food security, human health, and weather conditions. However, research also indicates that women are disproportionately affected by climate change. According to a United Nations Women Report, women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men primarily because they “constitute the majority of the world’s poor and are more dependent on natural resources that are threatened by climate change.” In fact, female farmers account for 45-80 percent of all food production in developing countries depending on the region, and 80 percent of people displaced by climate change globally are women. A report published by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security revealed that the “distinct impacts of climate change on men and women are exacerbated in settings that are also affected by violent conflict, political instability, and economic strife.” To mitigate the effects of climate change, it is critical that a holistic, sustainable approach to climate change is implemented globally and that women participate in national and international policymaking and decision-making processes. Women should not be positioned solely as victims of climate change — but as agents of change.

Oxfam America indicated that in penurious communities, women work in agriculture or other informal sectors or act as caretakers. Women are often responsible for gathering and producing food, collecting water, and sourcing fuel for heating and cooking. But basic, everyday tasks are challenged by climate change; when a climate-related disaster occurs, natural resources become more scarce, and fetching water requires walking long distances. Though women are more likely to be forced to migrate, women and adolescent girls face a greater risk of being sex trafficked while moving to foreign lands. Women additionally experience gender-based violence while residing in refugee camps. An article published by the UN Africa Renewal reported that in rural sub-Saharan Africa, “37 percent of the population is 30 minutes or more away from a safe drinking water source,” which is extremely burdensome and harmful to women, as they not only have themselves to care for, but also their children, the elderly, and those in poor health.

When natural disasters strike, the damage impacts the poorest and most vulnerable communities the hardest. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlighted that 70 percent of the demography of impoverished communities are women. Sea level rise “can cause salinization of soil and reduced crop yields in cultivated areas, drinking water impairment from salinity intrusion into coastal aquifers, inundation and erosion of coastal ecosystems, loss of fish habitat and reduced fish production, damage to coastal infrastructure, and loss of territory.” While these consequences affect all of humanity, women are more at risk health-wise. The vulnerabilities of women are exemplified by tropical Cyclone Idai, which affected over a million people throughout eastern Africa earlier this year, but left pregnant women particularly susceptible due to the lack of services available. For example, a pregnant mother of four children was in her late stages of pregnancy when the flooding reached her home. When she felt contractions, there was “no one at the shelter that could summon an ambulance and the mobile networks were also down.” The conditions created during emergency situations, such as crowded makeshift shelters, with poor lighting and little or no separation between families, contribute to an increased vulnerability to various forms of assault. These harsh realities women faced in climate-related circumstances demonstrate the need for the recognition and inclusion of female experiences, perspectives, and inputs in climate mitigation and preventive responses. 

While the effects of climate change have negative implications on the entire planet, when it comes to decision-making, women, as an Oxfam report notes, are often “left out of the conversation about adapting to climate change, even though they are sometimes in the best position to provide solutions.” Women are most likely to bear the heaviest burdens of climate change due to living below the poverty line. Women’s empowerment and gender equality are the keys to environmental sustainability. Because women globally play a pivotal role in natural resources and household responsibilities management, they are in a position to “contribute to livelihood strategies adapted to changing environmental conditions,” according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Studies conducted by UNDP suggest countries with higher representation of women in congress/parliament are “more likely to set aside protected land areas and to ratify multilateral environmental engagements.” The gendered impacts of climate change can be mitigated through the integration of women in peace and climate change decision-making processes; women can serve as agents of change.

* * *

Telesha Mahadeo recently obtained her M.A. in Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. Her concentrations are in Conflict Resolution and Transnational Security. She has a B.A. in International Affairs and Economics and a minor in Spanish from Northeastern University in Boston. Telesha studied abroad in Peru and Switzerland and worked overseas at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies through the Freeman Foundation Grant last summer in Jakarta, Indonesia. She is originally from Queens, New York.

(Photo: Nepal earthquake destruction, 2015.)