Climate change is defined by the National Geographic as “a long-term alteration of temperature and typical weather patterns”, its impacts felt on a regional and global level, affecting everyone to a varying scale of degree. However, it is important to consider how women who face barriers due to not only their gender but factors including cultural beliefs, age, poverty and ethnicity are disproportionately affected by climate change.
Global warming is arguably the most severe aspect of climate change, with rising heat levels placing immense pressure on the planet, having catastrophic effects on wind, temperatures, precipitation and sea levels worldwide. Resulting changes to the local landscape have a particularly damaging impact on people living in poverty who are highly dependent on the land for agriculture, livestock and resources to survive.
The rising heat levels and subsequent droughts mean individuals must travel further to seek adequate food, water and resources, with constrictive societal beliefs assigning these responsibilities to women. Travelling longer distances limits the opportunities for women and girls as more time is spent on domestic duties, which take precedence over gaining an education or employment. This can have disastrous consequences, particularly when climate disasters lead to displacement from the home and family, as women struggle to secure legitimate, safe sources of income. The UN reports that 80% of those displaced by climate change are women, with the most marginalised being extremely vulnerable due to limited rights and consequent limited access to resources.
Displacement typically results from hurricanes, tsunamis and floods and although the link is not explicit, climate change is believed to increase the level of these extreme weather events. In the aftermath of climate disasters, temporary refuge camps are often erected providing food, shelter and medical assistance to civilians. Despite the obvious threat to livelihood, another sinister threat faces women who survive such traumatic events. A direct link between climate change and female abuse is undeniable as evidence suggests “where environmental pressures increase, gender-based violence increases” including assault, child marriages and honour killings. Far from being a sanctuary and a place of hope, refuge camps can become a source of physical and/or sexual violence for women, with perpetrators exploiting women’s vulnerable position to their own advantage.
The domino effect of poor crop yields and limited natural resources resulting from climate change intensifies financial pressures on families, one solution to this problem being to arrange marriage for your daughter. The payment of money or gifts from the Groom to his Bride’s family as compensation is a custom called the ‘Bride Price’ carried out across parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia and can provide a desperate source of income to families devastated by climate change. Child marriage therefore becomes even more desirable, allowing families to access this income source sooner, and provide quick relief to their depleting financial situation. This practice is not purely considered for financial gain, as parents hope their daughter’s new family can adequately feed and protect her when they may lack the means or finances to do so themselves.
Despite this, protection is not guaranteed, and the marriage of minors presents a multitude of problems – questionable consent to marriage and subsequent sexual relations, increased likelihood of honour-based violence and childbirth issues. The risk of harm to women’s bodies is prevalent even before marriage with archaic views on female sexuality and modesty causing rising rates of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – removing part/all of the external female genitalia. This barbaric practice not only oppresses women but carries the risk of infections, childbirth complications and even death. The surge of child marriage cases often aligns with rising FGM rates; the procedure seen as necessary to ‘cleanse’ girls and prepare them for marriage in certain cultures. Girls who have undergone FGM can secure a higher Bride Price than those who are viewed as ‘unclean’. Consequently, FGM similarly becomes a more attractive option for families financially ruined by climate change to subject their daughters to.
Ultimately, climate change is fuelling gender inequality as it breeds the societal and environmental conditions to exacerbate the inequalities already faced by the most marginalised women in society. The biggest changes need to happen on an institutional level, but what can we do?
Support Women in Education
Charities such as ActionAid and Care International work tirelessly to ensure women worldwide can receive a full education. Education opens a wider range of employment and lifestyle choices for women, allowing them the option to defy constricting societal pressures and expectations of being only a wife and mother, and avoid potential bodily harm. Access to an in-depth education will also provide women and girls with greater knowledge and control in decision making if and when affected by climate change.
Elect female leaders
Incredible women worldwide are making huge strides in politics, but women remain a largely untapped resource. Having women in positions of power, especially politically, will result in greater representation and the creation of policies that can accurately reflect and support women’s needs. A compelling initial study has even evidenced that countries with greater female political representation adopt more precise, successful approaches to tackling climate change and lowering carbon emissions, although the exact reasoning behind this remains unknown.
We live in a society where factors including race, gender and wealth can dictate the level of influence you individually possess. Recognising the privilege you have can be uncomfortable, as we often neglect to realise how this impacts our daily life. Nevertheless, with privilege comes power, and by using this for good you can become a voice for the oppressed and campaign for lasting, systematic change.
Rather than being two distinct and separate issues, it is pivotal to understand the cyclical relationship between climate change and gender inequality. By working to alter the imbalance of gender inequality, we can ensure that the most marginalised women in society possess the rights, resources and awareness needed to survive and thrive in environments most impacted by climate change. In turn, providing women with economic, political and social equality provides them with the ability and opportunity to actively contribute towards climate action, providing fresh perspectives to the biggest problems facing our planet, and a new hope for the solutions.
By Ceara Toon for Studenteer
© All Rights Reserved, Studenteer 2021