Who runs the world? Women, if we want prosperity, sustainability and life

Women Water Carriers with Yoke and Buckets, Bagan, Myanmar
Increasing water scarcity is likely to have a bigger impact on women’s lives than men’s.

On International Women’s Day, MSc Climate Change, Management and Finance student Cecilia L’Ecluse considers why it is that the changes brought about by global warming will be a disproportionate burden on women – and why women’s leadership and involvement is key to the future of our planet.

Following severe flooding in Bangaladesh in 1991, nine times more women than men died. In May 2008, cyclone Nargis caused a major catastrophe in Myanmar, killing 138,000 people. 61% of them were women.

The devastating path of hurricane Katrina in 2005 left single mothers and elderly women to bear the greatest burden: 80% of the people who did not manage to evacuate the city on time and who had to take care of themselves after the storm were women and their children.

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but, as these example illustrate, it will not affect everyone equally. Overall, poorer people in developing countries are the most vulnerable to rising sea levels, droughts and extreme weather. But, although the socioeconomic reasons are complex to unpick, even in richer ‘Western’ nations, there is an imbalance in how the lives of men and women will be changed by global warming.

This International Women’s Day we should think about why are women more vulnerable than men to climate change effects like water scarcity, soil depletion or flooding, and extreme weather events, which will increase in frequency over the next decades. A key challenge for the international community is how can we ensure that women are protected from those effects. Finally, I propose that women’s leadership in planning climate change adaptation measures will ultimately benefit us all.

Social status is key

In most developing countries, women’s lower social status goes a long way towards explaining why they are more affected by climate change than men. This lower place in the social hierarchy usually goes hand in hand with lack of decision-making power and a greater share of household responsibilities.

In many developing countries, women’s daily lives are closely tied to water since women are typically responsible for collecting and storing water for their households. To sustain a family of five, a woman has to carry 100 litres every single day. Increasingly frequent or severe droughts mean women have to make longer walks to collect water, amplifying detrimental health effects such as damage to the spine, neck muscles, and lower back.

These responsibilities also leave women less time to go to school or to perform other income-generating activities, lowering their status even more. Moreover, when there is limited water available, social norm prevails that the husband has priority use of this water, which has further harmful effects for women’s hygiene and health.

When soils are depleted soils and firewood is scarce, this has the same effect: women suffer the burden of spending more time securing food and providing household energy, as these activities are their responsibility.

Flooding also has disproportionate effects on women. In developing countries, women often leave their homes too late because information is only communicated publicly among men. Some women are further endangered by the fact that they are not even allowed to leave the house without explicit permission of their husband. Furthermore, in some Asian and Latin American societies, girls are not taught to swim because of societal dress codes, which means they cannot save themselves during heavy flooding. Even after flooding has subsided, societal pressure for modest attire can mean women stay hidden and don’t seek medical care when they lose their clothing during floods or other natural disasters.

Women’s personal security is another major concern, as both women and children are more at risk for sexual abuse during such disaster times compared to non-disaster times.

Badly damaged house
Destruction following hurricane Katrina

When it comes to developed countries, where women generally have a higher social status, economic disparities between women and men persist. The gender pay gap can leave single mothers and elderly women at a disadvantage when citizens are expected to pay for expensive adaptation measures themselves. Or, as in the case of hurricane Katrina, income inequality and the marginalised status of poor women can prevent women from evacuating during disasters, leaving them behind without any help. In New Orleans, 56% of the households are headed by single mothers, and one in four women live below the poverty line.  Women the world over are expected to provide the burden of social care and support to people whose health is affected by climate change.

Involving women leads to the best outcome for everyone

Social norms dictate fundamental differences in how climate change will affect women. As a result, women need specific climate change adaptation. To design such measures, I believe that it is crucial to give women more decision-making power. In this way, adaptation policies will take women’s needs into account and address the root causes of this gender imbalance. Sadly, this is not the case today: in almost all countries today, women are not equally represented in community-level, national or international decision-making.

Even though Christiana Figueres led the world towards the Paris Agreement in 2015, she was one of the very few women involved in the final negotiation process. Looking at the photo below showing the heads of states who signed the Paris Agreement, women are few and far between.

Family Photo of Leaders at COP21
Heads of state at the UN climate conference in Paris (COP21), December 2015 (Image credit: United Nations)

But safeguarding women by giving them decision-making power does not only protect women, it protects the whole planet.

Differences in attitude

Women and men have an equal role to play in limiting the effects of climate change. According to a study by the European Commission, women are more worried than men about the effects of climate change on health, take more environmentally-friendly measures such as reducing waste, and think more often than men that their national government is not doing enough to protect the environment.

A World Health Organisation study found that these gendered differences in attitude towards the environment apply more widely on policy decisions. In developing countries, women have more in-depth knowledge of water management and energy resources because it is their responsibility in the household. Involving women in the decision-making process therefore results in better strategies to cope with issues related to energy and water resources.

I strongly believe that involving both women’s and men’s views equally when developing mitigation and adaptation instruments leads to the best outcomes in terms of effectiveness of these instruments. Consequently, it leads to the best result for the whole planet.

So, let’s not leave women out when it comes to tackling climate change. It is time that women become empowered in all countries at all levels of decision-making, for the sake of the future of our planet.

3 thoughts on “Who runs the world? Women, if we want prosperity, sustainability and life

  1. Very good blog. It fits nicely with a book we at Friends of the Earth published just over a year ago, provocatively called Why Women Will Save the Planet (published by ZED Books) in response to a poor engagement by much of the green movement on gender equality issues

    1. Thank you very much for your recommendation. I am looking forward to read this book, as there is a lack of critical literature on this topic.

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