“I am 60 years old and I have never experienced so much flooding, droughts hot winds and hailstones as in recent years . . . I am surprised how often we have these problems. Whatever the cause, more crops are failing and production is lower.”
Chandrika Tiwari, Nepal
Climate change is affecting everyone, whether they realize it or not. But it is women like Chandrika who are suffering the most, simply because they are women, and women are poorer. Women make up 70 percent of the world’s poor. This is true even in the United States where the gap in poverty rates between men and women is wider than anywhere else in the Western world. Here in the United States in 2007, 13.8 percent of females were poor compared to 11.1 percent of men. The current economic crisis has only worsened this situation. Throughout the world, women have less access to financial resources, land, education, health, and other basic rights than men and are seldom involved in decision-making processes. This makes them less able to cope with the impact of climate change and less able to adapt.
This vulnerability can be seen most tragically following a natural disaster like a hurricane, a cyclone or a flood when the mortality rates are reviewed. Almost always, significantly more females die than males. The reasons they die are well understood. Warning information is often transmitted by men to men in public spaces, but rarely communicated to the rest of the family. Long skirts hamper running and swimming. Many women have never had an opportunity to learn to swim or to climb trees. In some cultures women are not allowed to leave the house without a father, husband or brother to accompany them, so they wait for their relatives to return to take them to a safe place. Women tend to stay behind in order to look after children and the elderly and to protect property. In rescue efforts in some countries, boys are given preference over women and girls.
What is not well understood is that women have important knowledge and skills that can help their communities to both adapt to climate change and to mitigate its effects. It’s a fact that when women are given access to resources and training and allowed to participate in community decision-making – the whole community benefits. Here are some examples of adaptation and mitigation of climate change from around the world that succeeded because women participated.
The municipality of La Masica in Honduras did not have any fatalities from Hurricane Mitch on 1998. This outcome can be directly attributed to a process of community preparedness that began six months prior to the disaster. The project involved the establishment of local organizations in charge of risk and disaster management, training in geographical mapping of hazards and an early warning system. Men and women were equally involved with all of these efforts. When the hurricane struck the municipality was prepared and vacated the area promptly, thus avoiding deaths.
The country of Mali is two-thirds desert. 90 per cent of the country’s energy needs are met by burning wood and charcoal. As a result, deforestation is intensifying and desertification is accelerating. Loss of wood cover is intensifying erosion, which in turn makes the soil poorer for farming, and exposes loose soil that is more vulnerable to flood. Flooding happens more often with the heavy rains, and this is seen as partly due to climate change. The Sinsibere project works to reduce desertification by developing sustainable sources of income for rural women as an alternative to their commerce in wood. These alternative livelihoods include vegetable gardens and making shea butter products like soap. After six years, 80 per cent of the participating women no longer cut wood for commercial purposes, or have substantially reduced their woodcutting.
Béni Khédache in Tunisia is a mountainous and dry region, vulnerable to drought in summer and sometimes-torrential rain and landslides in winter. A wide-ranging sustainable environmental resource management project was undertaken. The project was comprised of numerous initiatives tackling desertification, water stress and erosion, through a variety of methods often based on traditional knowledge. The participation of women was particularly important for identifying local knowledge for reducing desertification. Techniques included rainwater harvesting, innovative irrigation, and increasing the area’s biodiversity and plant cover. The initiative worked to reduce risks of hazards likely to be exacerbated by climate change, such as desertification, and landslides triggered by extreme weather.
A collective of 5,000 women spread across 75 villages in southern India is now offering chemical-free, non-irrigated, organic agriculture as one method of combating global warming. The women follow a system of interspersing crops that do not need extra water, chemical inputs or pesticides for production on arid, degraded lands that they have been regenerated with help from an organization called the Deccan Development Society.
Women in wealthy nations have a role to play too. While everyone should take action to reduce climate change, those of us who live in wealthy nations have an even greater responsibility because our lifestyle, our disproportionate consumption of resources is largely responsible for the problem. The people of the United States make up five percent of the world’s population, but are responsible for 25 per cent of annual green house emissions. Women can play an important role in lowering this number by making three changes in their families’ lifestyle.
- Switch to fuel efficient automobiles and use public transportation more often.
- Eat less meat. Give up meat for one day per week, initially, and decrease it from there. Worldwide livestock farming generates 18% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.
- Switch to energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs in your home. If every household replaced just three 60-watt incandescent bulbs with CF bulbs, the pollution savings would be like taking 3.5 million cars off the road!