The Importance of Gender in the Fight Against Climate Change

Molly O’Gorman explains the importance of including considerations of gender in the discussion of Climate Change, and how vulnerable women around the world are disproportionately affected by global warming and natural disasters.

Climate change does not affect everyone equally. The lack of global representation in the conversation about climate change is leaving the world’s most vulnerable people to bear the brunt of global warming, frequently the poorest women. Although we are faced with a stark gender imbalance when it comes to fatalities from natural disasters, showing that many of these deaths are clearly preventable, an ecofeminist viewpoint has been notably lacking from plans to help groups most at risk.

Women make up two-thirds of the world’s poor and seventy percent of the world’s agricultural workers.[1]It is frequently women whose jobs depend on their environment, and it is women who have to travel longer distances and put themselves in more danger when these environments are no longer yielding. As child malnutrition continues to rise as the climate crisis continues,[2]it is women who are the primary caregivers and in many cases are expected to sacrifice their own nutrition and health for the sake of their children. In at-risk countries where many women are denied an education, women are also not informed of evacuation procedures in the increasing case of a natural disaster, but are instead expected to put themselves in danger for the lives of men and children. In 1991, Bangladesh suffered perhaps the most notable – and bleakest – incidence of this in recent memory, when over 90% of cyclone victims were female,[3]deaths now regarded as the preventable result of a lack of education. Furthermore, natural disasters in Bangladesh correspond to increased numbers of trafficked women and sex workers in Dhaka, as women displaced from their communities do not have the options of their male counterparts. Despite this, little attention has been paid to women as a specific at-risk population. In a world where the global decision-makers are men, and the women who make it to the top have little connection to the vulnerable and uneducated, there is a sense that the lives of these people are being treated as unimportant. There is a strong feeling in the West that climate change is something that is coming; for these women, it has already come. Treating global warming as an impending threat is to tell a lie. At the very least, our treatment of the climate crisis as such speaks volumes about whose lives we value. Until the West begins to pour resources into the education and emancipation of the women most affected by the climate crisis that we created, it is clear that the panic around global warming is not a fear for the globe but for white, Western communities; the plight of poor women in Asia, Africa, South America and Oceania is only ever raised as a reminder of what may be coming for us.

In ignoring the environmental education of these women, we leave both them and our planet to a dark fate. In the majority of developing countries, it is women who make the choices about their community’s relationship to the planet with regard to food and fuel, yet these women are often ill-equipped with knowledge of climate change, and even worse equipped with options. In Somalia, for example, the reliance of poor nomadic communities on charcoal was a leading factor behind deforestation and desertification, which in turn was leading to malnutrition and uninhabitable land. Whilst activists pushed the government to ban the exporting of charcoal early this century, it has been NGOs such as Sun Fire Cooking which have been bringing environmental education and sustainable living options such as portable solar cookers to Somali women who were otherwise left high and dry with no option other than to destroy their own environment and community in providing for them.[4]International summits and agreements to reduce emissions are important, but they leave the West with a false sense of security, that there is still time, a luxury that the women that colonisers and corrupt governments have left impoverished and uneducated do not have. In our carbon footprint and in our colonial history, we are culpable for preventable deaths and the preventable acceleration of environmental destruction. In telling us that there is still time to save the planet, postcolonial patriarchal governments are telling us which victims are the important ones, and erasing the suffering of the many brown women whose lives have been needlessly destroyed through our inaction.

[1]Global Humanitarian Forum, The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis, Geneva 2009

[2]The Worldwatch Institute, http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6271

[3]Unicef report on Women and Girls in Bangladesh

[4]Why Women Will Save the Planet, Zed Publishing

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