Urgently needed attention: The lethal & socially negative impacts of climate-related events on women Print E-mail
 Wednesday 10 March 2010

RIGHTS: "Famine Marriages" Just One Byproduct of Climate Change

By Thalif Deen*
African women attending the Commission on the Status of Women chat in the lobby of U.N. headquarters.(Credit:Bomoon Lee/IPS)

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 9, 2010 (IPS/TerraViva) - The negative fallout from climate change is having a devastatingly lopsided impact on women compared to men, from higher death rates during natural disasters to heavier household and care burdens.

In the 1991 cyclone disasters that killed 140,000 in Bangladesh, 90 percent of victims were reportedly women; in the 2004 Asian Tsunami, an estimated 70 to 80 percent of overall deaths were women.

And following the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in the United States, African-American women, who were the poorest population in some of the affected States in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, faced the greatest obstacles to survival, according to the New York-based Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO).

The 2007 Human Development Report, issued by the U.N. Development Programme, points out that women are particularly affected by climate change because they are the largest percentage - accounting for about 70 percent - of the poor population.

Amy North, a researcher working on gender, education and global poverty reduction initiatives at the Institute of Education in the University of London, told IPS climate change is also exacerbating existing gender inequalities, with a devastating effect on the quality of life of poor women and girls.

In many parts of the world, women and girls are responsible for collecting water and firewood.

As these resources become scarcer in the face of increasingly erratic rainfall, they must spend more time looking for and collecting them, further reducing the time they have available to engaging in economic activities, or attending school, she said.

Women are also the main producers of food, providing 70 percent of agricultural labour in sub-Saharan Africa, and so are particularly affected by reduced agricultural output, North added.

"The care responsibilities that fall to women and girls mean that health problems associated with climate change - including an increase in waterborne diseases associated with flooding - often result in them taking on an increased burden of care as they are required to look after sick family members," she noted.

June Zeitlin, a former executive director of WEDO, has cited a study by the London School of Economics analysing disasters in 141 countries that provides decisive evidence that gender differences in deaths from natural disasters are directly linked to women's economic and social rights.

That is, gender inequalities are magnified in disaster situations. So when women lack basic rights, more women than men will die from natural disasters.

The study also found the opposite to be true: in societies where women and men enjoy equal rights, natural disasters kill the same number of women and men.

In an interview with IPS, North said that in East Africa - a region that is acutely feeling the effects of climate change, with widespread drought resulting in critical shortages of food and water - research suggests that increased poverty levels is having serious consequences for the education of girls.

In Kenya, participants in the Gender, Education and Global Poverty Reduction Initiatives project have noted that increased poverty associated with drought has affected school attendance, with girls being more likely to be withdrawn from school than boys. In neighbouring Uganda, the food crises associated with climate change have been linked to higher rates of early marriage for girls, as they are exchanged for dowry or bride price.

These "famine marriages" - as they are called - not only lead to girls dropping out of school, but also make them vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections and related reproductive complications.

WEDO's Cate Owren told IPS her organisation is also deeply concerned about the political status of negotiations on climate change.

"We do not support the Copenhagen Accord (finalised last December) serving as the basis for ongoing negotiations this year," she said.

But still, she said, "We are celebrating (and maintaining momentum from) great strides being made over the course of the last few years, during which time gender equality issues were substantively integrated into climate change negotiations."

According to WEDO, not only did gender texts increase (peaking at 40 plus) in negotiating documents, but so did women's participation.

At the Copenhagen talks, women comprised about 30 percent of registered country delegates, the largest percentage of women attending a climate change meeting on record.

Stefan Wallin, Finland's minister of culture and sport, told delegates last week that one of his country's "strong areas of emphasis" concerns decision-making processes on matters affecting climate change.

"Finland has taken an active role in ensuring that climate change decision-making is inclusive, both of women and men," Wallin said.

He said climate change does not affect women and men in the same way. "It has gender-differentiated impact," he noted.

Finland, he said, has argued that climate targets are reachable only "if the knowledge and views of both women and men are included, and if both women and men are committed to the goals."

Asked how women could be protected from the after-effects of climate change, North said there are a number of important steps that must be taken.

Women's groups mobilised around the climate talks in Copenhagen last year to demand that a gender perspective be integrated into the Copenhagen outcomes and follow-up activities.

"It is essential that these demands are taken seriously and that all future agreements around climate change recognise the differential impacts that climate change has on men and women," North said.

For this to happen, she said, women's participation must be ensured in the negotiation of policies and strategies to tackle the effects of climate change at international and national levels.

And as individual governments draw up National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) to outline their priorities for adapting to the effects of climate change, it is crucial that these take into consideration the particular effects of climate change on women and girls.

Moreover, serious attention must also be given to addressing the underlying gender inequalities that make women more vulnerable to the effects of climate change in the first place.

This includes taking action to ensure women are able to participate in decision making and political processes that affect them; tackling the inequalities that women face in accessing employment and childcare; and making concerted efforts to ensure real progress is made towards achieving gender equality in education.

North said this will be a key feature of discussions that will be taking place at the E4 (Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality) conference in Dakar, Senegal in May this year, and in e-discussions that will be held from Apr. 12 to May 17.