Global Policy Forum

Empowering Women to Combat Climate Change


By Adelia Saunders

September 28, 2007

Weather-related catastrophes are on the rise, and the future of agriculture is uncertain. The cause is global climate change, and an increasing number of experts recognize that it is women who will suffer most. "When disaster hits, gender inequality will grow," Irene Dankelman, Board Vice Chair of the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) said in an interview with MediaGlobal. Ms. Dankelman, along with other members of WEDO, the Council of Women World Leaders and the Henrich Boll Foundation, gathered in New York last Friday to promote the discussion of gender issues at the United Nations High-Level Event on climate change. "A lot of information is already available in the disaster and gender areas, but almost no recognition at policy level," Dankelman said.

In the Asian Tsunami of 2004, 70 to 80 percent of those killed were women. Following a devastating cyclone and flooding in Bangladesh in 1991, the death rate among women between the ages of 20 and 44 was 70 per 1000, while among men only 15 per 1000 died. In Zimbabwe, cyclones have destroyed dams needed to irrigate land where 75 percent of the farming is done by women struggling to feed their families. A study of 141 countries, published in January by the London School of Economics, found that in societies where women are marginalized socially and economically, natural disasters kill significantly more women than men. Greenhouse gasses, emitted primarily by the developed world, are causing temperatures to rise, creating chaotic weather patterns that have devastating effects on the most impoverished areas of the world, where studies show 70 percent of the poor are women.

"Without secure access to and control over natural resources [such as] land, water, livestock, [and] trees, women are less likely to be able to cope with permanent climate change," said Lorena Aguilar, Global Senior Gender Advisor for the World Conservation Union. "Men and women are not suffering equally from the impact of climate change." According to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if left unchecked, global warming will leave 80 to 120 million people hungry, up to 80 percent of them in Africa. "Because of global warming we are seeing malaria in places that have never reported malaria, we're seeing more cases of dengue fever," Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, told MediaGlobal, citing strong links between development and health. "Climate change will have a major impact on air, water and food. All these are fundamental determinants of health," Chan said. Often the primary providers of water and food, women will have to work harder and travel farther to secure them.

Many see a switch to biofuels as an important step in decreasing carbon output, yet agricultural experts and women's advocates alike are cautious. The cultivation of plants for biofuel will bring cash to developing countries, but may threaten food security. In addition, when agriculture "becomes commercialized, then women lose control of production," Dankelman said. "Environment is not just a technical or political issue. It's also a social issue. Everybody knows that when we talk about sustainable development we cannot leave out half of the population - especially those who are most connected to the realities of life," she said. "We need space and formal recognition that women are a major group and should be a major group in the climate change arena."

Women find themselves left out of community decision-making in vulnerable areas and are often not made aware of impending catastrophe until it is too late. Yet when women are included in early warning systems, "there is a much bigger chance that their communities will survive" and recover from natural disasters, Dankelman said. According to the World Conservation Union, one village in Honduras gave women the responsibility of monitoring storms and made them equal participants in disaster planning. Unlike its neighbors, it suffered no casualties during the devastating Hurricane Mitch of 1998. Dankelman stressed empowering women "not only at the global policy tables, but also at the national level in the case of climate change," where, particularly in developing countries, women remain an untapped resource. Women have "generational knowledge" of safety precautions and agricultural adaptations, as well as "the capacity to mobilize and the capacity to bring in the community's perspective in a quite technical, economic or political - often political - debate," she said.

While efforts to check climate change are gaining international momentum, the recognition of women's dual role as primary victim and effective adversary is slow in coming. Speaking of the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali in December, where a post-2012 plan for addressing climate change will be adopted, Dankelman was wistful. "We'll be very happy if there will be any discussion on gender issues and climate change," she said.



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