How climate change disproportionately affects women

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Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time, impacting the entire globe with far-reaching consequences. However, its effects are not evenly distributed. Women, especially those in developing countries, bear a disproportionate burden of the adverse impacts of climate change. This disparity arises from a combination of socio-economic, cultural, and biological factors that exacerbate women’s vulnerability to climate-related events.
Natural disasters, which are becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change, often result in higher mortality rates for women. For instance, a study by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) examining natural disasters in 141 countries from 2002 to 2021 found that natural disasters and their subsequent impacts (such as disease outbreaks) killed more women than men, or killed women at a younger age than men.
Socio-cultural norms and roles significantly contribute to this increased vulnerability. Women are often responsible for caretaking duties, which can limit their mobility and ability to evacuate during disasters. Moreover, in some cultures, women may not be taught to swim, which increases their risk during floods. For example, the 2022 flood in Pakistan, inundated a third of the country’s territory, impacting a staggering 33 million people, including an estimated 8.2 million women.
Women are more likely to depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. According to the United Nations, in many parts of the world, women are responsible for gathering water, firewood, and other resources necessary for daily life. Climate change exacerbates resource scarcity, making these tasks more time-consuming and physically demanding. This not only affects women’s health but also limits their opportunities for education and employment.
Access to clean water and sanitation is crucial for health, and climate change is exacerbating water scarcity. Women and girls are often responsible for water collection, and as water sources become scarcer, they must travel longer distances, increasing their exposure to violence and health risks. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress, disproportionately affecting women and children.
Similarly, Women constitute a significant portion of the agricultural workforce, especially in developing countries. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), women make up about 43% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries. Climate change affects crop yields and livestock, directly impacting these women’s primary source of income and food. Droughts, floods, and unpredictable weather patterns reduce agricultural productivity, leading to food insecurity and economic instability.
Furthermore, Climate change has direct and indirect impacts on women’s health, particularly reproductive and maternal health. Increased temperatures and extreme weather events can lead to poor pregnancy outcomes, including premature birth and low birth weight. According to a study published in Nature Climate Change, for every 1°C increase in temperature, there is an estimated 5% increase in the number of preterm births on global level.
Climate change is a significant driver of displacement. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reports that an average of 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced annually since 2008 due to climate-related events. Women and children make up a substantial portion of these displaced populations, facing heightened risks of exploitation, gender-based violence, and inadequate access to healthcare and education in refugee camps.
As climate change impacts agricultural productivity and natural resources, many families are forced to migrate in search of better living conditions. Women, particularly those who are single or heads of households, often face greater challenges during migration. They may have limited access to financial resources and decision-making processes, making it more difficult to relocate and rebuild their lives.
Natural disasters and climate-induced displacement often lead to breakdowns in social structures and law enforcement, increasing the risk of gender-based violence. Women and girls are more vulnerable to trafficking, sexual exploitation, and domestic violence in the aftermath of climate-related disasters. Competition for scarce resources, such as water and firewood, can also lead to increased domestic violence. As climate change exacerbates resource scarcity, women may face violence from partners or community members when trying to access these essential resources. This violence further hinders their ability to secure the resources necessary for their survival and that of their families.
Climate change affects school attendance, particularly for girls. In many developing countries, girls are often the first to be withdrawn from school to help with household chores and caregiving responsibilities when resources become scarce. According to UNICEF, girls in sub-Saharan Africa are significantly more likely to drop out of school during droughts because they have to spend more time fetching water.
It is also significant to note that lack of education has long-term impacts on women’s empowerment and economic opportunities. Girls who are denied education due to climate change-related pressures are less likely to achieve financial independence and are more vulnerable to child marriage and early pregnancies. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty and vulnerability that is difficult to break.
Women often have less political and social power, limiting their ability to influence climate policies and disaster response strategies. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), women hold only 24% of parliamentary seats globally. This lack of representation means that women’s specific needs and perspectives are often overlooked in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Despite these challenges, women are at the forefront of many grassroots movements advocating for climate action. Women’s groups around the world are working to develop sustainable agricultural practices, promote renewable energy, and advocate for policies that address the specific impacts of climate change on women. Empowering these movements and ensuring women have a voice in climate policy is crucial for effective and equitable climate action.
Developing gender-responsive climate policies is essential for addressing the disproportionate impact of climate change on women. These policies should consider the specific vulnerabilities and strengths of women and integrate gender perspectives into all stages of climate action planning and implementation.
Economic empowerment is a key strategy for increasing women’s resilience to climate change. Providing women with access to financial resources, education, and technology can enhance their capacity to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Programs that support women entrepreneurs and farmers, particularly in climate-affected areas, can help build more resilient communities.
Investing in education and training for women and girls is critical. Ensuring that girls can continue their education, even during climate crises, will help break the cycle of vulnerability and empower future generations. Climate education programs should also include a focus on gender, helping both men and women understand the importance of gender equality in climate resilience.
Promoting the inclusion of women in decision-making processes at all levels, from local communities to international forums, is vital. Women bring unique perspectives and solutions to climate challenges, and their involvement is essential for developing comprehensive and effective climate strategies.
Implementing measures to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in the context of climate change is crucial. This includes providing safe spaces and support services for women and girls in disaster-affected areas, as well as incorporating protection measures into disaster response and recovery plans.
Climate change is a global challenge that requires a collective response, but it is essential to recognize and address the unequal burden it places on women. By understanding the specific ways in which climate change disproportionately affects women, we can develop targeted strategies that not only mitigate these impacts but also promote gender equality and empower women as key agents of change. Through inclusive policies, economic empowerment, education, and protection from violence, we can build a more resilient and equitable future for all.