Arwa Aburawa examines the threat that climate change poses to women.
It is widely accepted that statistics are dry and boring. Numbers don’t show the human face of an issue. But some statistics can speak volumes. A cyclone that hit Bangladesh in 1991 killed more than 138,000 people, out of whom 90 percent were women. In some areas of India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, more than 80 percent of victims killed by the 2004 tsunami were women. A 2007 study of floods in Africa found that women and children made up 75 percent of an estimated 1.5 million people who were displaced that year.
Although these figures don’t reveal much about the women who live in fragile and vulnerable environments, they do illustrate one important point: women are disproportionately affected when natural disasters strike. With climate change expected to cause natural disasters on a more frequent and intense scale, we can presume that increasing numbers of women will be affected, along with their families and communities.
Clearly, nature doesn’t discriminate. The reason that women are more vulnerable to environmental disasters is because of their relatively weaker socioeconomic status. Kanwal Ahluwalia, a gender equality researcher at Plan, a children’s charity, explains that gender inequality plays out in subtle ways to adversely affect women. For example, gender norms in poor countries such as Bangladesh mean that girls are discouraged from learning skills such as climbing trees or swimming that could mean the difference between life and death during a flood.
Women living in drought-prone countries such as Ethiopia and other sub-Saharan African states are also affected, states Kanwal, who contributed to a 2011 Plan report on how girls worldwide are affected by climate change. Desperate times brought on by drought mean that girls, who aren’t seen as future breadwinners, are pulled out of school and sent to work as domestic servants. Parents are also more likely to give away their daughters at an early age, with forced marriages used as a coping mechanism following climate shock-related famine. During times of drought, girls and women who are often responsible for collecting water and firewood must venture further in search of diminishing supplies, and this exposes them to more dangers.
“These all have an impact on girls’ ability to complete [their] education and access skills and knowledge,” says Kanwal. This, in turn, means that girls are denied the opportunity to change their economic and social situations, which puts them at further risk. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s not without solutions – ones that are uniquely women-driven.
“It is a paradoxical situation because even though they are vulnerable, women are also the ones from where the answers come,” says Dr Vandana Shiva, arguably the world’s most famous and influential eco-feminist. Born in India and trained as a scientist, she has, for decades, championed organic and sustainable farming as a key to resolving the ecological crisis. She also worked closely with the Chipko movement in India where women hugged trees to prevent them from being felled, thus inspiring the now global term “tree huggers”.
“Real solutions for climate change won’t come from world leaders or at climate conferences,” adds Vandana. “[Solutions] will come from those who are vulnerable and are already dealing with the impacts of climate-related disasters – in other words, women.” Turning their vulnerability into practical solutions by sharing their knowledge means that women can also become empowered. For instance, they can teach others how to save seeds that can be replanted if climate disasters wipe out crops. They can help to highlight the dangers that the most vulnerable members of a society will face. By raising their voices during climate debates, they take back control.
As glaciers melt in the Himalayas and sea levels rise in the Bay of Bengal, as droughts become more extreme and more extended, and as floods become more unpredictable, people are realising that something is wrong with the planet. And they are also connecting this to richer nations that discharge pollution into the atmosphere, causing climate change. “So when the awareness of this climate injustice grows,” explains Vandana, “any talk of climate change must include the disenfranchised, the impoverished and the underprivileged. And, most importantly, women – because ultimately it’s their future at stake.”
Women, Islam and climate change
Sofiah Jamil is a Muslim environmental campaigner based in Singapore. As well as setting up Project ME, a Muslim environmental group, she is a PhD candidate at The Australian National University and an Adjunct Research Associate at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where she works on climate change and environmental security issues. “I think it’s important that Muslim women get involved in environmental issues because they are the main drivers of change at the household level. They can support their children who are taking green actions and [can] still make important decisions about consumption and [encourage] eco-consciousness. Women are also untapped resources of traditional knowledge – especially in rural settings. If we look at who toils in agricultural fields, you more than often find women, and they have important insights as to how to manage the land more sustainably.”
Dr Vandana Shiva on the organic food revolution
A renowned scientist and environmentalist, Vandana is the founder of Navdanya, an Indian non-governmental research organisation which runs a biodiversity conservation programme that supports local farmers and promotes organic farming. According to Vandana’s research, 40 percent of the world’s emissions come from a globalised and industrialised system of food production that also creates hunger, destroys biodiversity, ruins water supplies and leads to obesity. “So with a movement promoting ecological and organic agriculture, you can solve 40 percent of the problem,” she says. But for this to happen, Vandana notes that climate issues need to be defined as women’s issues. That way, instead of drastic and short-term “solutions” such as geo-engineering (the deliberate modification of the planet’s environment through concepts such as building artificial volcanoes and huge mirrors to reflect the sun) or genetically modified (GM) crops, there would be real and meaningful changes to the ways in which our societies and economies function.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Aquila Style magazine.