Why Climate Change is Also a Gender Issue For Poor Countries?

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Climate change debates normally revolve around the financial interests of the industrialized nations. Sense of global justice and well being of poor nations whose contribution to greenhouse gas emission has been minimal are not reflected in the decisions taken at the international climate change meetings.

This is the price you have to pay when you live in a neighborhood and people are not mindful of their actions and don’t care if they are harming you. Your life becomes more difficult if your voice doesn’t matter to them and you lack options and resources to protect yourself.

Nothing new, I hear you say. And I agree with you.

Effects of Climatic Mess-up will be Harsh on Poor People

“The impacts of climate change are not evenly distributed – the poorest countries and people will suffer earliest and most” (UK Treasury: 2006)

TheIntergovernmental Panel on Climate ChangeIPCC (2007) notes: “Climate change impacts will be differently distributed among different regions, generations, age classes, income group, occupations and genders. The impacts of climate change will fall disproportionately upon developing countries and the poor persons within all countries, and thereby exacerbate inequities in health status and access to adequate food, clean water, and other resources.”

People in the poor countries have a lifestyle that is intimately connected to agriculture and natural resources. Predictability of annual seasons and rains had been a major source of security and insurance for their survival. However, the record high concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, wasteful exploitation of natural resources, preference for industrialization of economies has relegated, and forest degradations and loss of biodiversity all over the planet has drastically damaged the cycle of annual seasonal variation. Now climatic conditions are becoming more and more unpredictable and the frequencies of severe events like floods, droughts, landslides, etc has suddenly increased. What used to be a once-in-hundred-year event has now become once-in-twenty-year event.

All this loss of climatic order directly threatens the lives of people closely connected to nature and its bounties. It is not just a matter of increasing hardship but of survival for them because they have very limited options. The United Nation’s Population Fund also acknowledges this fact and further warns that women will be worst affected due to their traditional role and intimate connection to agriculture and nature.

Analysis of recent climatic disaster such as hot summers, droughts, storms or floods shows that women more severely impacted than men, both in developing and in developed countries. For example, the 20,000 people who died in France during the extreme heat wave in Europe in 2003 included significantly more elderly women than men. These may be not only due to biological differences but also because of the social roles women play which can be changed.

What makes Women More vulnerable?

“Poor women’s limited access to resources, restricted rights, limited mobility and muted voice in shaping decisions make them highly vulnerable to climate change.” (UNDP, 2009)

Gender differentiated roles and responsibilities of women have traditionally been in favor of men. However, education and better opportunities bring down some of the differences. This is true in the developed countries as well as in the literate societies in the developing countries, especially in the urban metropolis societies.

Rural areas tend to have weaker educational infrastructure and the traditional gender division remains more or less intact. Therefore, although women are as much involved in agriculture, fishing, and other livelihood activities as men are, their social status diminishes their freedom and options. This adds to their hardships when faced with abrupt or unpredictable crises such as climatic events. Therefore, due to their social roles, discrimination and poverty women are affected differently by the effects of climate change and by extreme climate events that often translate into disasters.

Adverse Impact on Women

According to a UNDP paper, in the poor countries women are traditionally involved in the following four activities; all of which will be directly impacted by climate change disasters.

Food security: Subsistence farming is often their sole source of food and income. Climatic events such as drought, floods, and untimely rains will rather disproportionately increase their hardship pushing them towards hunger and starvation. Likewise forest produce is another important source of subsistence for them which will be under pressure with adverse climatic conditions causing forest degradation.

Impact on livelihood: In coastal areas women are more dependent for their livelihood on natural resources such as fishing. Rising sea level and storms will not only disturb their fishing activities but also cause water scarcity as sea water mixes with fresh water. This will encourage migration. First, when the men leave, the burden of running the family falls on women; then when the family migrates they have the major responsibility of adjustment in the new society with a uncertain future.

Water scarcity: Women and girls are largely responsible for fetching water from nearby well, pond or river. They have to often travel large distances and carry the load of water to home. A bucketful of 20 liter water weighs 20 kg; carrying it, say 2 – 5 km, is a physically demanding task. Women living in drought prone areas will have to toil harder and travel longer distances. This will have adverse effect on their health which, in turn, will deteriorate their reproductive health with further negative consequences. Studies indicate that women in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, spend 40 billion hours per year collecting water – equivalent to a year’s worth of labor by the entire workforce in France. UNDP (2007) reports that in northern Kenya the increased frequency of droughts means that women are walking greater distances to collect water, often ranging from 10 to 15 km a day.

Increased burden of care giving: As primary caregivers, women may see their responsibilities increase as family members suffer increased illness due to exposure to vector borne diseases such as malaria and water borne diseases such as cholera.

So, What is the Solution?

There is a simple ways to help them better cope with the climate change related hardships. It is by increasing their representation in the decision making process. Most of their problems require adaptation strategies which differ in different locations and are rather “local” in nature. The ideal way to help them is to allow them to come up with their own solutions and then providing technical and financial assistance. But this necessarily requires making efforts to reduce gender inequality and then empowering them.

There is another reason why women must be included: it is not because they are “more vulnerable” but because they have different perspectives and experiences to share. So far, climate change debates have tended to be rather technical, social ramifications have never received that much priority. It is here that the inputs from women groups can make a significant different.

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