Women make up half of the world, yet, when that world is on fire, they take up most flames. According to the UN, 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. Since they are the primary caregivers and providers of food and fuel in many parts of the planet, they become more vulnerable to floods, droughts, and other natural disasters.
The 2015 Paris Agreement has a specific provision for women empowerment, recognizing that they are disproportionately impacted. Let’s briefly look at some of the reasons why it is so.
(Not much of a) Shelter from the storm
One of the most horrid parts of climate change is people losing their homes to rising sea levels, unbearable heat, tropical storms, and increasing dry periods. Changing climate causes an increasing number of natural disasters that force people to leave their homes and seek makeshift shelters. While one might think that any roof is better than no roof, life in shelters makes women deal with a whole new set of issues, such as sexual abuse. Cases of rape and sexual assault spike in the wake of disasters and not only in developing countries but also in such economic powerhouses as the United States. The buzzing chaos caused by such events drowns individuals in the sea of moving bodies, and those bodies are vulnerable to those who are willing to take advantage of them.
Another shelter-related issue is the constant lack of female sanitary products, which causes discomfort and puts women’s health at risk. We are talking about hundreds and thousands of women under one roof, caring not only for themselves but also for their young children. When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, more than half of the city’s families were headed by single mothers. They and their children needed immediate help and resources, and when we’re dealing with great amounts of people, the resources are almost always too scarce.
The poor get poorer
In more rural parts of the world, it’s almost impossible for women to achieve financial independence or financial security. In half of the countries of the world, women are still denied property rights. Even though they represent about 43% of the agricultural workforce, they can’t purchase tools and fertilizers or buy more land without these rights. As the soil quality worsens, they have no means of adapting by using more advanced farming techniques. The scarcity of water resources already puts women in a dangerous position where they have to walk extremely long distances to provide a few gallons of water for themselves and their families’ everyday needs. In such conditions, watering the crops or providing drinking water for the cattle becomes nearly impossible.
It’s astounding how certain communities depend on particular bodies of water to sustain themselves. A well-known geographer and environmental activist, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, told the BBC that up to 90% of Lake Chad has disappeared in central Africa, and the lake’s shoreline keeps receding. Women have to walk much farther to collect water. She also noted that men go to the towns in the dry seasons and leave women to look after the community. Since the dry seasons are getting longer, their work is becoming harder and harder, and their vulnerability increases dramatically.
Scarce water resources and extended dry seasons cause families to face extreme poverty. Such conditions massively increase the amounts of cases of child marriage. Early arranged marriage (in teen years) damages the girls psychologically and robs them of a chance at education since married girls can no longer go to school. Therefore, the vicious cycle of inherited poverty continues. According to the UN, In Malawi, for example, the effects of climate change could create 1.5 million additional child brides in the upcoming years.
In such environmentally vulnerable areas, even the unmarried girls struggle to receive the education they deserve. Floods make it hard for them to get to schools, and the general increasing climate-related poverty forces them to stay at home and help their families by taking care of smaller children, fetching water, cooking, cleaning, etc. In times of great need, going to school is no longer considered a priority. The education issues also arise in displaced populations. For the reasons mentioned above, refugee girls are half as likely to be in school as refugee boys.
Climate-related violence and neglect
Since climate change affects the availability of resources, they become more and more valuable. In a conversation with “Global Citizen, “Verona Collantes, an intergovernmental specialist with UN Women explained that such environmental stressors have helped to fuel the rise of organizations that engage in human trafficking and extreme labor exploitation to harvest such natural resources as minerals and animals. Certain terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, target people, particularly women, who have been displaced from their land because of droughts. According to Collantes, “Violence against women is often employed as a way to reinforce gender imbalances and maintain control of limited resources in these situations.”
Displaced women also face extreme dangers when it comes to healthcare. Without access to hospitals and decent sanitary conditions, pregnant women struggle to maintain proper nutrition and adequate pre- and post-natal care, which can cause serious health problems for both the mother and the baby. Pregnant women are also more susceptible to diseases that spread in refugee camps, such as cholera.
And still, we persevere
Despite the daily struggles of inequality, women worldwide are rising to fight against climate change. Despite the disproportionate distribution of power, women take the leading positions in the environmental movements. From Greta Thunberg to Christiana Figueres, from Vanessa Nakate to Ursula von der Leyen, the female voices shape the new narrative that will, hopefully, be greener, fairer, and more equal. And while some world leaders still struggle to comprehend that climate change is the top priority right now, this question doesn’t seem that obscure when you wake up in the morning to walk five miles to fetch five gallons of water for your entire family for the whole day. And yet, it’s not a question of perception. It’s a question of basic equality and justice for all.