The Gendered Impact of Climate Change
CSW66(2022) contribution from Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD)
By Heather Rainey, WPD Intern.
The sixty-sixth session of the Commission of the Status of Women takes place from the 14th-25th of March 2022. The priority theme is the empowerment of all women in the context of climate change, with the review theme focusing on women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work (the agreed conclusion from the sixty-first session).
Climate change is intrinsically linked to poverty and gender. As 70% of the world’s poor are women, hazardous weather events and poor harvest yields are more likely to become disasters for women because:
- Women are more reliant on natural resources for livelihood, thus disproportionately affected by natural disasters;
- Women are less likely to be in decision making positions to mitigate the effects of climate change;
- Women and girls are likely to be responsible for their family’s food and water provisions, thus as water sources dry up, it is women who are forced to walk great distances in developing countries to access these resources;
- Women in areas of India and Bangladesh forced to walk further as rivers become saltier (Global Citizen, 2018);
- A 2014 study by the World Health Organisation found that in coastal areas of Bangladesh pregnant women suffering life threatening conditions including high blood pressure and eclampsia was linked to their consumption of salty water;
- There is an increased risk of gender-based violence following disasters, as women, when forced to leave their home due to climate change are increasingly susceptible to early marriage, rape, or adolescent pregnancy;
- Women’s lower economic status globally means access to medication is restricted. Rising temperatures increases the biting rate of mosquitos and accelerates the maturation process of the parasites they carry. As this process is temperature sensitive, those living in sub-Saharan African developing regions, are most harshly affected (UN Women Watch, 2009, p. 4).
The Role of Gender Equality
Verona Collantes, an intergovernmental specialist with UN Women:
“The IPCC (International Panel of Climate Change) found that gender inequalities are further exaggerated by climate-related hazards, and they result in higher workloads for women, occupational hazards indoors and outdoors, psychological and emotional stress and higher mortality rates compared to men”.
- Women face social, economic and political barriers which restricts their ability to cope with the effects of climate change;
- About two thirds of the female labour force, and more than 90% in African countries are engaged with agricultural work, so the exclusion of women from the decision-making process leaves them with little control over their livelihoods (UN Women Watch, 2009, p. 1).
The Effect of Climate Change on Widows
Widows are faced with a unique situation when it comes to climate change. The experience of gender inequality shared by many women globally combined with the perceived ‘burden’ of widows on society serves to create a constant cycle of exclusion and abuse, not just from widows communities but often their own family too, thus removing any support system that may have been accessible without their widowhood status.
- Widows often lack an education, hence the dependence on agriculture for income, however without support of a husband or family network, widow’s financial security is limited. As increasing temperatures often result in low agricultural crop yield, the issue of food security affects widows in numerous ways:
- Widows who operate as subsistence farmers then have little access to food;
- Widows who operate in agriculture for profit may be put out of work, furthering their financial difficulties.
- This places them in even more vulnerable positions by forcing them into informal street work including prostitution;
- A widow is often forced to take on both roles of the household, especially if she has dependent children, thus climate change increasing the distance that women must walk in order to find food and water seriously hinders their ability to have a steady financial income as widows may not be able to commit to a job;
- The inheritance laws in many developing countries work against widows frequently leaving them with no property or financial means to fall back on. This leaves widows more exposed to natural disasters as they may not have the funds to secure adequate medication to combat the issue of rising disease that accompanies climate change.
Widows as Agents for Change
Viewing widows purely as passive victims in climate change ultimately diminishes their ability to significantly contribute to the changes that need to be made. Widows play a crucial role in prevention, adaptation and mitigation strategies.
- Adaptation: Widows are more likely to work in agriculture, as mentioned, thus they can use their traditional know-how in various areas in order to seek new sources of water, plant different varieties of crops or promote biodiversity;
- Mitigation: Widows local environment knowledge when combined with modern techniques can be used to create conservation agriculture, energy and water saving practices as well as recycling activities – mitigating greenhouse gases in everyday life;
- Many large-scale programs aimed at tackling climate change found it difficult to integrate this knowledge mainly transmitted by women (notably widows) thus it is undervalued at a national level.
- Charbit, Y. (2018). Women As Actors in Addressing Climate Change. International Handbook on Gender and Demographic Processes. International Handbooks of Population, 8.
- Global Citizen. (2018, October 31). Women in India Face Health Problems and Other Risks as the Rivers Grow Saltier. Retrieved from Global Citizen.
- UN Women Watch. (2009). Women, Gender Equality and Climate Change. UN Internet Gateway on Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women.
Heather Rainey is a third year Politics student at The University of Edinburgh and is a researcher for Lawyers Without Borders.
She is an intern with Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD) and has had an interest in women’s rights for as long as she can remember.