In developing countries, social structures that disadvantage women often put them at higher risks of harm and even death from climate change. For example, because women are frequently responsible for caring for children and the elderly, they’re often the last to leave when a disaster strikes. A 2007 study from the London School of Economics found that natural disasters — which are expected to become more severe as the world heats up — are more likely to kill women than men, and that this disparity is largest where women’s socioeconomic status is lowest.
“Because of these existing gender inequalities that are perpetuated by customs, social practices, and even economic structures, women are more vulnerable,” Collantes told VICE News. “So there is a differentiated impact.”
Women are also largely responsible for tasks that may become more difficult in a warmer world. In 63 percent of households in rural sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women must collect and carry the family’s water, according to a 2010 UN report. In only 11 percent of households does this job fall to men.
Climate change, deforestation, and desertification are leading to declining water supplies, the report found, and that means women, and in some cases young girls, might need to spend more time finding water — time that could otherwise be spent on education or earning an income.
“Climate change directly impacts the ability of women to achieve their own human rights and increases gender inequalities,” Eleanor Blomstrom, program director for the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, told VICE News.
Despite the greater threat to women, their needs are often neglected in sustainability planning, said Nisha Onta, a gender and climate change expert with the women’s rights organization WOCAN. Under UN climate change guidelines, for example, developing countries are expected to submit plans for how they will adapt to a changing climate. But those plans are often made without incorporating plans for addressing gender inequality, like the fact that a lower-class woman in Bangladesh might not be allowed to use a new water pump, which is seen a important tool for managing changing precipitation patterns.
“The needs and reality of women are lacking and the work of women is kind of taken as a given,” Onta told VICE News. “[Developers say,] ‘We will go in and we will have water, we will make water accessible.’ How are you going to do that? Women are going to collect this water. Have they been consulted? Do they have time?”
Involving women in sustainability planning can often serve a dual purpose of improving a communities response to climate change and helping women improve their social status. In Nepal, for example, WOCAN gave women stoves that ran on biogas, which emit lower amounts of carbon dioxide than more commonly used wood-burning stoves. Less time gathering wood and tending the fires meant women had two additional hours each day to devote to other activities.
“If you include women in planning and implementation, the output of your project will be more successful,” Onta told VICE News. “They’re the ones who are very much involved with agriculture, food security, water, energy. They’re the ones who are cutting trees and cooking at home.”
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In the Mugu district of mountainous northwest Nepal, warmer weather is threatening the food supply, a burden that is largely falling on women. Several feet of snow used to cover the ground during the winter months, making the tough terrain easier for the Mugal community to plow in spring. With much less snow and even winter rains — a new phenomenon — crop production has dropped and traditional underground food storage methods are failing.
To address their agricultural woes, women have had to shift their planting seasons and learn to grow warm-weather foods, like beans and pumpkins, that never could have survived in the cold Mugu district before. Women can sell some of these crops to earn income, and have used their traditional knowledge to gain new status in their communities.
More women are now attending village council meetings to get their needs addressed, said Camille Risler, who works with the Mugal women. Landslides in the melting Himalaya blocked the village’s canal and crushed their water mill, used by the women to grind flour. Now, the women are demanding repairs to the canal so they no longer have to walk four hours a day to a neighboring village’s mill.
This participation in adapting to climate change has helped improve women’s status in the community, Risler said. “[The men] are not very used to seeing women interact and taking care of community issues,” Risler told VICE News. “It’s not only benefiting the women, it’s benefiting the community in general. They see their capacity and they see that the women succeed in doing what they do. So they accept it.”
Advocates like Risler are hoping that the UN sustainability goals will help convince world leaders that gender equality needs to be an integral part of fighting climate change. But some are still reluctant to even acknowledge the reality of either issue.
“Some countries are not really willing to take climate change seriously or to have adaptation policies that really take into account the needs of the most vulnerable people, especially to include some gender-specific policies and measures,” Risler told VICE News. “I would say there is a lack of awareness of the problem.”