In many parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, women are largely responsible for providing their family with food and water. Consequently, water scarcity affects women first. Prolonged hot weather and drought increase the distance women must walk to fetch water and firewood. This, says a study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, increases their likelihood of being sexually assaulted or raped on the way. The study also shows that girls are twice as likely as boys to have to help their mothers at home (cooking, cleaning, taking care of siblings) and in the fields. When poor harvests reduce families’ income and leave them unable to afford school fees, girls are the first to be withdrawn from school. In Ethiopia, Sudan, and elsewhere, poor harvests and drought also lead families to marry off teenage daughters, in part to have one less mouth to feed, but also because in return they receive much-needed livestock or money from the groom’s family.
If harvests and soil quality deteriorate further, it’s typically men who move to a city or emigrate to another country in search of work. Women stay behind with the family. But women often have no property rights and therefore lack the resources to improve their precarious situation. Despite being largely responsible for tending the fields, women own just 20% of land worldwide. Moreover, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report points out that in 72 countries women cannot open bank accounts or take out loans. And are therefore unable to invest in fertilizer or more modern agricultural equipment.
The gendered nature of natural disasters
According to the Red Cross’s World Disaster Report, extreme weather and climate change are responsible for four of five natural disasters worldwide. The majority of victims, points out a study by the London School of Economics, are women. A cyclone that hit Bangladesh in 2007, for example, had 80% female victims. Similarly, four times more women than men died in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, while flood disasters in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal have typically resulted in a majority of female victims. This is partly due to the perpetuation of stereotypical gender roles in developing and emerging countries. Women are often at-home caregivers for children and relatives. They also tend to be less mobile and lack transportation. This renders them less able to flee and reach safety. Some drown while trying to rescue children and relatives from the floodwaters because, unlike many men, they weren’t taught how to swim.
The gendered nature of natural disasters extends to Europe as well. Heat waves in southern Europe, for instance, result in dramatically higher mortality rates among older women. This could be because many older women have lower incomes and thus can't afford air-conditioned or well-ventilated housing. Another reason could be that, unlike older men, many older women live alone and aren’t cared for by relatives. A report by the European Parliament notes that “Women are many times more likely to die than men during natural disasters.” It advocates working toward “a gender-oriented climate agenda.”
Gender Action Plan
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) addressed the issue of gender and climate for the first time in 2001. Gender has been regular item on the UNFCCC’s agenda since 2012 (only about 30% of UNFCC delegates are female, so the interests of half the world’s population are underrepresented). In 2017 the UNFCC adopted a Gender Action Plan (GAP). Its five priority areas include “capacity-building, knowledge sharing, and communication,” “gender balance, participation, and women’s leadership,” and “gender-responsive implementation.” Its overall aim is to promote greater climate justice. Although the GAP consists of recommendations rather than binding policies, it’s nevertheless a big step in the right direction. It raises awareness that climate change affects women and men unequally. And that this can be changed if women play a larger role in climate-policy decisions.