Gender, climate change and natural disasters

The recent spate of “natural” disasters (some of which are “climate related”, some are not) all over the world caused me to wonder whether their effects are evenly spread between the sexes. Logically, human beings of both sexes should react in much the same way to environmental threats, and any differences in the effect of disasters between the sexes should be fairly small.

I was interested to turn up some research that has already been done. I was appalled at what it showed: more women die than men as the direct and indirect result of natural disasters; 90 per cent of the 140,000 victims of the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone disasters were women (PDF 92KB); more women than men died during the 2003 European heat wave; and the 2006 tsunami killed three to four women for each man.

How could that be so?

In a speech in 1999 Lord Hoffman, an English law lord, said “... unless you know the question, you will not be able to get the right answer. Once the question has been identified, the answer is usually relatively easy ...”. That prompted me to think that in order to find out why women are more affected by climate change than men, by first asking "in what ways are women more affected?" we might get some clues as to why women are affected in that way.

Some interesting patterns emerged when I went digging.

In Sri Lanka, swimming and tree climbing are taught mainly to boys; this helped males cope better than females, and allowed more to survive when the waves of the tsunami hit. Social prejudice keeps girls and women from learning to swim, which severely reduces their chances of survival in flooding disasters.

Women often stay indoors because of social prohibitions against leaving home.

In Aceh many women were found dead with babies still clutched in their arms. Some personal accounts by survivors tell of mothers pushing their children to safety on to buildings or up trees that withstood the tsunami, but were then swept away themselves. The long dresses women are obliged to wear under Aceh’s shariah laws made it harder to move quickly. They could not run as fast as men, nor could they swim.

There were stories of some women, who were in their homes but casually dressed when the first wave struck, who ran to put on “acceptable” outdoor clothes before seeking safety, and as a result were drowned or barely escaped.

In times of disaster and environmental stress women become less mobile because they are the primary care-givers.

After a natural disaster, women are more likely to become victims of domestic and sexual violence. They often avoid using shelters out of fear. The household workload increases substantially after a disaster, which forces many girls to drop out of school to help with chores.

Nutritional status is a critical determinant (PDF 968KB) of the ability to cope with the effect of natural disasters. Women are more prone to nutritional deficiencies because of their unique nutritional needs. Some cultures have household food hierarchies, generally favouring males. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women carry greater loads than men, but have a lower intake of calories because the cultural norm is for men to receive more food.

Women plant, produce, procure and prepare most of the world’s food: women are responsible for about 75 per cent of household food production in Sub-Saharan Africa; 65 per cent in Asia; and 45 per cent in Latin America.

The time-consuming task of gathering and transporting water generally falls to women. As water becomes scarce, women’s workload increases dramatically. Girls’ school attendances, and eventually enrolments, drop as they trek longer distances to find water.

From the information I was able to access it seemed to me that the ways in which women are affected more than men is fairly consistently associated with their caregiving obligations or with cultural or religious mores.

So what if anything can we do about these appalling statistics?

There is probably no real scope for direct action because most of the foundational problems are entrenched cultural or religious mores that are not really susceptible to even local political intervention. Can aid agencies do what governments can’t? Perhaps it all comes down to educating women - giving them the benefit of the capacity for critical thought that comes with general education, and also educating women to look objectively at, and perhaps think differently about, their roles and behaviours and the consequences of these when under threat. That might at least bring them closer to a position of choice (PDF 912KB).

But each possible solution brings more problems and more questions. Where does the money come from? Should it come from developed nations considering that some of these disasters have been exacerbated or caused by their development? How should fair contributions be determined?

In September last year The Council of Women World Leaders (CWWL), the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) and the Heinrich Boll Foundation North America organised a roundtable called “How a Changing Climate Impacts Women”. The participants recognised that while there are no references to gender in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), statistics show that climate change is not gender neutral.

In December 2007 four global institutions - Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), United Nations Development Program (UNDP), World Conservation Union (IUCN), and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) - met with Women environment ministers and leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali to ensure for the first time that “gender issues are prominent in climate policy and action”.

As a result of the meeting, the Network called upon the signatory countries and the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to:

  • recognise that women are powerful agents of change and that their full participation is critical in adaptation and mitigation climate policies and initiatives, and hence, guarantee that women and gender experts participate in all decisions related to climate change;
  • take action in order to ensure UNFCCC compliance with human rights frameworks, international and national commitments on gender equality and equity, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW);
  • develop a gender strategy, invest in gender-specific climate change research and establish a system for the use of gender-sensitive indicators and criteria for governments to use in national reporting to the UNFCCC Secretariat;
  • analyse and identify gender-specific impacts and protection measures related to floods, droughts, heatwaves, diseases, and other environmental changes and disasters; and
  • given that millions of poor women affected by climate change live and work outside the reach of formal markets, design and implement funding mechanisms accessible to them to reduce their particular vulnerabilities. In addition, increase equitable access by poor women and men to climate change market-based approaches such as the Clean Development Mechanism.

The actions of these groups is a positive and essential step: unless the interaction between gender and climate change is placed and kept firmly on the agenda, any policies to slow and redress climate change and its consequences are unlikely to assist disadvantaged women. Their proposals also allow action to be put in train now, through established international organisations which have the capacity to allocate the necessary funding. And if we all encourage our governments to support their initiatives through the United Nations - to which all wealthier countries are financial contributors - then we are all making a contribution to the solution.

Addressing the issue of gender and climate change requires long-term objectives and long-term commitment from the international community. The women’s organisations who are currently involved simply can’t shoulder the financial burden, and nor should they. And with the frequency and severity of environmental disasters increasing it is also critical that the work of those organisations should not be hindered by the qualification “pending funding”.

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and political commentator. She is Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Legislation for BPW International. 


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