In some countries across the world, people have the privilege of not facing the climate crisis on a daily basis. For those living in England, for instance, we can fool ourselves into thinking climate change doesn’t directly affect us besides experiencing the occasional – but increasingly frequent – record-breaking high temperatures days each summer.
However, many people do not have the luxury of ignorance. Particularly in developing and poverty-stricken countries, climate change is a tangible and terrifying reality; for these inhabitants it means flash floods, long droughts, destructive storms and increasingly unpredictable weather. These conditions disproportionately impact the world’s poorest, who are hardest hit by climate change. As women and girls make up the majority of the world’s impoverished people, they are bearing the brunt of the climate disaster.
This reality is damaging the livelihoods of millions who depend on reliable conditions to produce the food they need to survive. For fishing communities in areas of Cambodia and Indonesia, their source of income has been hindered by destructive storms and floods, meaning families struggle to access food, clean water supplies, and earn the living they previously made through sales.
These countries are particularly vulnerable to changes in the climate due to their abundant biodiversity, which is easily destroyed by extreme weather. The seasonal balance is essential for their delicate ecosystems, with the monsoon season bringing much needed water for birds, plants, and fish to thrive. This rainy season, however, is becoming more erratic, destroying homes and crops with flash floods; by comparison the dry season is becoming longer and hotter, both decreasing river levels and causing lengthy droughts.
These seasonal changes bring about devastating environmental impacts and affect fish migration patterns, causing detrimental effects to the poorest citizens who are most reliant on these natural resources. When struggling to make a living, these families have to find a way of bridging this income gap, which often leads to more responsibilities being placed on children – daughters are often expected to fulfil these tasks in place of attending school.
We are now at a critical stage for change, with scientists predicting the threshold for ‘dangerous warming’ (an increase of 1.5 degrees celsius) will be crossed between 2027 and 2042. The growing human population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, with food production needing to increase by 50% to satisfy this extra demand.
Climate emergencies need to be prevented rather than reacted to; climate change threatens food production, biodiversity, water supplies, and bearable living conditions – all of which are indispensable for human survival. This is not an issue restricted to developing countries either: since 2014, droughts and heatwaves in European countries are reported to have hit their worst for over 2000 years.
Without drastic, global action, we will continue to see widespread famine, land destroyed, and increasing levels of people forced to migrate as their homes become inhabitable. If international efforts are not made to heed the advice of climate experts, disasters and seasonal changes are set to become more destructive, extreme, and unpredictable, pushing more women than ever into poverty.
Why are women the worst affected by climate change?
The 2019 slogan for global charity ActionAid was ‘Worst hit. Least to blame’. In developing countries, women are disproportionately impacted by climate disasters, due to existing gender inequalities and structural issues that make women more vulnerable to environmental and human threats to their safety and survival.
Generally, the burden falls upon women to source supplies such as food, water, and fuel for cooking and heating, meaning prolonged droughts can add an extra 4 hours to the daily trip to fetch water for their families. When faced with these periods of drought, families must choose between their daughters’ education and adequate water supplies; in Botswana, for example, girls make up 70% of the children absent from school during severe droughts.
Likewise, other climate disasters lead to school absence so that girls can help source extra crops to alleviate the added financial insecurity, and assist with the burden of extra domestic chores caused by land destruction.
As well as missing school during this time, girls and women also face increased risk of sexual violence and assualt due to travelling great distances when their local supplies become unavailable. Gender-based violence increases the potential of child marriage, sexual trafficking and unwanted pregnancy – all of which can also occur in the displacement camps that replace their homes lost to uninhabitable land.
Forced displacement due to land destruction is one of the predicted to be one of the most damaging effects of climate change on women, forcing women to evacuate their homes to stay in shelters where sexual violence is a common threat to their safety.
In 9 out of 10 countries worldwide there are laws restricting women’s rights to work and own property, often making it illegal for women to work in factories, during the night, or even seek employment without permission from her husband. In many developing countries this means that women are directly responsible for agricultural labour, but aren’t afforded financial independence.
Women contribute to a huge percentage of the workforce globally – carrying out both formal work and taking on the majority of unpaid household labour through chores and child rearing – 43% of farm labour in developing countries is performed by women.
The lack of financial autonomy for many women means they are excluded from significant decision-making processes in both domestic and professional environments, and can severely impede those who have lost families, homes and livelihoods due to climate-induced disasters. When severe droughts and floods hit, women’s limited options are compounded by the lack of independence they’ve been afforded previously, making survival that bit more difficult.
This survival disadvantage is exacerbated by a lack of formal education and practical skills. Women are more dependent on natural resources to provide food and income, and often haven’t been afforded the opportunity to pursue other skills. As a result, when their livelihoods are threatened by climate change, women have fewer options as they rarely have formal education to fall back on. This lack of education extends to practical survival knowledge – they often haven’t been taught basic skills like swimming or the telltale signs of imminent disasters such as tsunamis, meaning they’re less able to adapt and survive these crises.
Furthermore, women are most likely to care for children in the event of a natural disaster, forcing them to move more slowly and giving them fewer safe options. Pre- and post-natal women and young children are also more susceptible to the diseases that abound in the wake of a natural disaster.
Across the world, women are facing the brunt of climate change disaster, and are removed from the male-dominated rooms where key decisions that could save them are made. As Natalie Samarasinghe, executive director of the UK’s United Nations Association stated, “women are on the frontlines of the fall-out from climate change and therefore on the forefront of climate action”. For women worldwide, we need climate justice.
How can education help seek justice for women?
Providing women and girls with the education they deserve would expand their opportunities, survival abilities, and make them valuable assets in the global fight against climate change. This is a necessity for all our survival.
Particularly in developing countries, women need to be armed with the vital knowledge and skills to tackle the climate crises that threaten their communities, families, and homes. Pakinstani activist Malala Yousafzai recently commented on this issue at an online event by Chatham House: “Girls’ education, gender equality, and climate change are not separate issues… When we educate girls they can become farmers, conservationists, solar technicians. Problem-solving skills can allow them to help their communities to adapt to climate change”.
Providing girls with formal education, survival skills, and financial agency will provide benefits for them as individuals and the wider climate crisis. Additionally, extensive research has shown that women with higher levels of education have fewer children which, in turn, places less strain on the planet. If empowered with this access to education, girls and women hold a unique position in mitigating climate disasters and adapting to change.
A daughter who has been afforded an education is a matter of survival for many families; they are the difference between financial loss and starvation due to low crop or meat yield, and extra income from pursuing non-agriculture based opportunities.
Women usually adopt the role of homemakers and household organisers, and in developing countries this often means they’ve developed transferable skills such as resource allocation, conservation of resources, and in depth knowledge of the surrounding environment. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if female farmers were given equal access to education, financing leadership, and land rights, the yield of farms could be increased by 20 to 30%.
Empowering women through education is key in fighting the climate crisis and making global agriculture more sustainable by employing climate-smart methods, such as water conservation, native shade trees, and organic fertilizer. It is essential that more sustainable methods of food production are implemented worldwide, particularly so that the poorest communities no longer bear the burden of climate-induced disasters.
Women and girls are a vital part of the solution to climate change, through the power of education they can slow the growing human population and negative impacts of global warming. Providing them with an education is essential in the fight against climate change: we simply will not succeed when half the population are unable to fulfil their potential.