By Michelle Peñaherrera
There are two subjects of extreme relevance in development that are being regarded more and more: climate change and gender equality. This is critical, as the importance in addressing them is beyond delay. However, the correlation between these two topics is much deeper than what is normally put in evidence. Therefore, this article analyses climate change through the gender lens, displaying how gender-divisions translate into unequal vulnerabilities. Notwithstanding, I highlight how women are challenging said adversity and bringing to the table innovative responses, that might just point to the correct direction for effective climate change policies. Climate change is increasingly affecting every person on this planet. However, the magnitude of the effect varies immensely according to people´s ability to respond to those environmental changes – or adaptive capacity. In humans, this capability to cope is influenced by certain social factors, such as power relations. As power relations can be many, I will focus the attention of this discussion on the socially-constructed dynamics that create hierarchies amongst genders, which place women in disadvantage.
As such, climate change is not gender-neutral; the socially fabricated gender-roles hinder women’s access to certain elements that would improve their adaptive capacity such as land tenure, monetary credits, information, mobility, control over resources, paid work availability, and income diversification, to name a few. For this reason, women are 14 times more likely to die in climatic disasters (Arora-Jonsson 2011); as exemplified in the cyclone in Bangladesh (1991) and the Tsunami in Sumatra (2004). However, make no mistake, this happens in developed countries too, for example Hurricane Katrina or the 2003 European heatwave (Gaard 2015). In these scenarios, women were placed in a disadvantaged position due to their lack of skills or property and monetary assets. In addition to this, because of their roles as child carers, they cannot easily escape if they have children in their arms or do not receive disaster alerts as they are homebound. Furthermore, in these circumstances, women’s susceptibility to sexual assault is increased.
Additionally, gender hierarchies not only create a lack of opportunities, but they also dictate specific roles and responsibilities that place women in direct relation to climate-sensitive activities such as food preparation or water-gathering in rural areas. Women are thus impacted by the effects of climate change in their daily activities. Furthermore, the gender division of labour exacerbates health problems connected with environmental pollution exposure (i.e. respiratory issues due to indoor cooking pollution or higher exposure to water-borne diseases due to water harvesting). These adverse health consequences leave women with less time and resources for education, income-generating activities, or participation in decision making, thus further limiting their options for adaptation. Consequently, it is an undeniable fact that women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
However, I want to highlight women’s astonishing agency to confront this matter, as they are not to be seen merely as victims. They have often turned their situation around and become resilient. In a discussion about climate change, it’s imperative to notice how the roles that exacerbate women’s vulnerability and place them in close interaction with natural resources, have created ancestral knowledge. Women have a higher awareness of soil and water behaviour and, hence, possess the know-how to respond to natural changes. For this reason, women all over the world have successfully responded to climate disasters, like in the following examples:
In Peru, the devastating effects of El Niño phenomenon (1997-98) generated a large migration of men in search of labour, creating many female-headed households in rural settings. Women and children stayed behind in the affected areas, with the responsibility to additionally fulfill the chores of the now-absent husbands. However, due to their ancestral knowledge to cope with limitations, they have accumulated human and social capital, and thus managed to create a diversified income base. As a result, they became less vulnerable compared to male-headed households (Anderson et al. 2017). Furthermore, women have managed to create new opportunities through resilience. For example, in Honduras (1998), after Hurricane Mitch destroyed most of the rural subsistence crops, the authorities distributed land ownership in a more equal manner, strengthening women´s capabilities to adapt. In addition, females utilized their ancestral expertise to diversify their harvest, creating a new job portfolio and reducing their vulnerability (McSweeney and Coomes 2011).
The importance of realizing women´s resilience to climate change cannot be overstated, as it benefits us all as a society. There has been evidence of how female´s environmental know-how has aided the saving of entire societies. This occurred in the drought and famine of the Machakos District in Kenya (1984-85), where women directed the response to the crisis. Their ancestral knowledge included adaptive farming tactics and appropriate rationing and storage of food, which challenged the devastating effects of the disaster and benefited the whole community (Rocheleau 2015).
Critically, analysing this behaviour demonstrates how recognizing women’s agency can challenge the established social structures and labels, that benefit one group over another. Why is this all relevant? As these examples demonstrate, women are essential strategists in our global fight against climate change.
It is imperative to include women in the decision-making process. When the marginalized do not participate in policy creation, their needs are not reflected in programmes and they cannot demand transparency and accountability. Currently, women’s share of global political empowerment is 25% in parliament and 21% in ministries, which, therefore, means that a significant proportion of female population, at all levels of authority, is not being considered in policymaking. Overall, what should not be forgotten in the urgent action towards climate change adaptation agendas, is its direct co-relation with socially constructed (and modifiable) power relations. Therefore, gender equality policies are key to solve climate crises in partnership with environmental approaches. This includes addressing women’s limited access to assets and monetary credit or creating more inclusive land tenure policies. Also, promoting women’s associations and their ability to hold other decision-makers accountable is important. Finally, it is essential to realise that circumstances from a global to a household level are dynamic and unique, and therefore there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution. Which only gives us more reason to promote participatory discussions alongside climate change policy creation.
Photo credits: Waner Gong
Andersen, L. E., Verner, D., & Wiebelt, M. (2017). ‘Gender and Climate Change in Latin America: An analysis of vulnerability, adaptation and resilience based on household surveys’. Journal of International Development, 29(7), 857-876.
Arora-Jonsson, S. (2011). ‘Virtue and vulnerability: Discourses on women, gender and climate change’. Global Environmental Change, 21(2), 744-751.
Gaard, G. (2015). ‘Ecofeminism and climate change’. Women’s Studies International Forum, 49, 20-33
McSweeney, K., & Coomes, O. T. (2011). ‘Climate-related disaster opens a window of opportunity for rural poor in northeastern Honduras’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(13), 5203-5208.
Rocheleau, D. (2015). ‘A situated view of feminist political ecology from my networks, roots and territories’. Practising feminist political ecologies. Moving beyond the ‘‘green economy’’ eds. Harcourt, W. & Nelson, I., 29-66.
This article is a contribution to our blog, written by Michelle Peñaherrera. Michelle is an Environmental Engineer and MSc in International Development: Environment, Climate Change and Development from the University of Manchester. With 10 years of professional experience targeting environmental impact reduction, policy creation, sustainability and social responsibility programmes; she now focuses on inequality reduction, climate change awareness, and urban inclusive development. She currently lives in her home country, Ecuador, where she works with vulnerable communities and host a Podcast to reach a wider sector of society regarding environment consciousness subjects.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Snakes and Ladders Blog or its members.