By Nuru Ahmed

Climate Change affects men and women differently, given their different roles and responsibilities at the household and community levels.

Women are more exposed and vulnerable to climate change because they are often poorer, receive less education, and are not involved in political and household decision-making processes that affect their lives.

Cultural norms related to gender sometimes limit the ability of women to make quick decisions on whether to move to safer grounds in disaster situations until it is too late. Therefore, climate change effects could deepen poverty and reverse progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Although the effects of climate change on people’s lives and livelihoods vary by region, necessitating the importance of in-depth local analysis, these effects, by and large, could derail progress towards sustainable development and reverse progress of MDGs.

Africa is highly vulnerable to climate change. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) projects that some countries’ yields from rain-fed agriculture will have been reduced by half by next year. Countries hard hit by land degradation and desertification include Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

A recent study by the World Bank indicates that 103 of 141 countries (25 of 35 economies in sub-Saharan Africa) have legal distinctions between men and women that are likely to hinder women’s economic opportunities.  Empowerment of women is vital to the efficacy of climate change projects and policies.

Natural resources are becoming ever scarcer due to climate change, which presents additional challenges for women. For instance, in rural Senegal rainy seasons are shorter than before and there has been a 35% decline in total rainfall over the last two decades.

As a consequence, women walk longer distances to fetch drinking, cooking and washing water, according to a study by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), a group that promotes gender equality and the integrity of the environment.

In addition to the fact that gender equality is a fundamental human right, there are other imperatives for promoting it in climate and development policy. Globally, only eight percent of cabinet members and nineteen percent of parliament members are women. Close to three quarters (70 percent) of those who live on less than $1 per day are women.

Women also account for three quarters of the world’s 876 million illiterate adults. Women work two thirds of the world’s working hours, yet receive only ten percent of the world’s income.  Women own only one percent of the world’s property. Although they predominate in world food production (50 to 80 percent), women own less than ten percent of land.

Ms Agnes Leina, Kenyan Human Rights Activist and Pastoralist

Women do not have easy and adequate access to funds to cover weather-related losses or adaptation technologies. Women face gender-based barriers to access to land, financial services, social capital and technology, which render them vulnerable to food insecurity.

United Nations Women is also mobilizing efforts to secure land tenure for women. It is working with the Standard Bank of Africa to help African women overcome barriers in the agriculture sector such as providing access to credit.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC), women and adolescent girls are the most vulnerable refugees, as they face a greater risk of being trafficked for sex while moving to a foreign land and of experiencing gender-based violence while in the refugee camps. In the camps, women risk assault when they venture out of the protected environment in search of water and firewood. 

 “Most African women depend on rain-fed livelihood systems like farming and livestock keeping. Therefore, any shift in climate patterns has a significant impact on women, especially those living in rural areas,” concurs Fatmata Sessay, United Nations Women regional policy advisor on climate-smart agriculture for East and Southern Africa Region.

Just as women are disproportionately affected by climate impacts, they also play crucial roles in preventing climate change, at least in small ways, and even helping their communities adapt to it.

“Women are actually essential game changers as actors and leaders in climate change,” explains Rahel Steinbach, programs officer at the United Nations Environment Program’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics. 

Leila Abdulahi, a 25-year-old Somali refugee who arrived in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya after the 2011 drought, narrated her experience to UN Women in 2014: “We are afraid to go fetch firewood in the forest. Bandits attack us in our own homesteads and rape us. If I had the money, I would just buy firewood and I wouldn’t then have to go or send my daughter to the forest.”

UN Women’s mandate is to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment. The 2011 Human Development Report (HDR) observes that global temperature and sea levels continue to rise and the likelihood of natural disasters is increasing (the average annual number has doubled over the past twenty five years).

These changes and the loss of ecosystems threaten livelihoods in many countries that are ranked low on the Human Development Index (HDI). Moreover these changes could exacerbate chronic environmental threats like deforestation, water scarcity and land degradation that hurt the poorest people the most especially women. Over 350million people over 70% of who live in Africa are affected by climate change.

Mostly poor people, live in or near forests on which they rely for their livelihoods. Climatic stress on forests could hurt the poor and other marginalized segments of society especially people vulnerable to climate change since their livelihoods are often highly dependent on natural resources that are sensitive to climate variability.

For example, agriculture, a highly climate-sensitive sector, supports the livelihoods of 70% of Africans, contributes to about 30% of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and about 50% of the total export value, and employs 65% of the continent’s labor force.

In Africa, the proportion of women affected by climate-related crop changes could range from 48% in Burkina Faso to 73% in the Congo. There are 2 million deaths per year (mainly women and children) related to the burnings.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment are central to development, environmental sustainability and achievement of the MDGs (Women as positive agents of change). For example, a study of 25 developed and 65 developing countries revealed that countries with higher female parliamentary representation are more likely to set aside protected land areas. Likewise, enhanced participation of women is crucial in addressing the adverse impacts of climate change.

Because women often show more concern for the environment, support pro-environmental policies and vote for pro environmental leaders, their greater involvement in politics and NGOs could result in environmental gains, with multiple effects across all the MDGs.

On the other hand, women have unique knowledge and skills that can help make the response to climate change more effective and sustainable. There is evidence that women play a vital role in dealing with disasters by effectively mobilizing communities in different phases of the risk-management cycle.

Thus women greater involvement would enhance disaster risk management and reduction. Lack of meaningful participation by women would therefore undermine the effectiveness and sustainability of climate change projects and programs.

Although today there is a greater understanding of the need to incorporate gender perspectives into climate change policy, there are still considerable gender-based barriers across the major pillars of international and national policy processes on climate change.

The Niger Delta is one of the world’s largest natural resource-rich areas. The region, however, has suffered from environmental and human rights abuses including oil spills, gas flaring and resulting destruction of ecosystems.

Nigerian women mobilized themselves at the community level into a social movement to protest against transnational oil companies as part of a world movement to stop the actions of these companies that led to ecological destruction.

Most of the natural gas in the region was being used for gas flaring to cut maintenance costs. As a result, more gas was being burnt there than in any other part of the world, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions greater than in the entire sub-Saharan region.

In 2006, these protests led to a ruling by the Nigerian courts that gas flaring violated the constitutional rights of citizens to life and dignity, and the courts ordered an end to the practice. Women as positive agents of change Sources.

Investing in women as part of the climate change response leads to environmental gains and greater returns across the MDGs and broader development objectives. Decision makers and development partners at all levels need to bring women into the planning, financing and implementation of climate responses.

These include adaptation and mitigation, food security and agriculture, health, water and sanitation, forestry, disaster risk reduction, energy and technologies, and infrastructure. It ensures that adaptive actions aim to build up the asset base of women.