It was a fateful day in 2011 when Beyoncé asked “Who runs the world?” The more accurate question, we posit: “Who runs the planet?” Or, even more exact: “Who runs the planet and who does the planet run against?”
We often hear about feminism and climate change as two separate issues–– they have different marches, different policies, and affect different people. However, when taking a closer look, it becomes clear that these two issues intersect; in the words of author Katherine K. Wilkinson, as reported by NRDC, “Climate change is not gender neutral.” Picking apart where exactly the cross sections exist will not only grant us a greater understanding of these issues as a whole, but–– more importantly–– allow us to seek, identify, and implement more comprehensive and inclusive solutions.
Natural disasters–– from hurricanes to droughts–– are perhaps the starkest and most tangible manifestations of climate change. Over the past two decades alone, extreme weather events have only gotten worse and more frequent. It was reported that between the years of 2000 and 2019, 7,348 natural disaster events (including droughts, earthquakes, floods, landslides, storms, wildfires, and earthquakes) occurred, killing more than 1.23 million people. We’ve all seen the photos: streets turned into rivers, individuals fleeing their obliterated homes clutching the little belongings they were able to salvage–– a look and feeling of desperation settles in among us all when we realise that climate change has shown its unwavering force once again. A common thread in all of these disasters, as reported in a study by the United Nations, is the disproportionate impact that they have on disadvantaged populations–– particularly women and children. It was estimated that 80 percent of people displaced by change are women.
Natural disasters, however, do not just imply displacement or migration. They have an expounding impact on the quality and amount of resources, life outcomes and opportunities of women and girls. A longitudinal study out of the University of Oxford followed 12,000 children in poor households across Ethiopia, India, Peru, and Vietnam. Their findings–– particularly related to the impact of natural disasters on child development–– were grim. Before the age of 15, more than half of the children in the Ethiopia group and over 40 percent in the India group had experienced some extreme weather event. What’s more: these events had a direct link to malnutrition and a lack of access to education, specifically for women and girls.
In India, historical rainfall data showed that droughts, flooding, and cyclones experienced by pregnant mothers can have an impact on their child’s ability to develop critical skills, such as vocabulary before the age of five and interpersonal and emotional skills during adolescence. It was also discovered that rainfall shocks and malnutrition experienced by young girls even before they become pregnant could have an impact on their future child’s height and cognitive development, a finding that shed light on the “generational” negative effects of the climate crisis on women, specifically in these disadvantaged areas.
The feminist movement–– particularly in Western parts of our world–– founded itself on the basic conviction that men and women should receive the same rights and opportunities. A key issue, then, in addition to things like voting and employment, has always been education. Just as a gender pay gap still exists in industries worldwide, gaps in expectation between the sexes run rampant especially in developing countries. Particularly, the roles and duties expected of young men versus young women. Girls in India, it was revealed in a 2015 McKinsey Global Institute report, perform nearly ten times the amount of unpaid care work than boys; further, girls who did two hours of housework a day had only a 63 percent chance of finishing secondary school. Decades of social attitudes and cultural standards have enforced the idea that it is less important for girls to get an education. In this already unquela landscape, when a climate disaster hits, newly critical housework such as collecting drinking water and firewood automatically becomes the burden of women. This ultimately translates into a reality in which girls are at a much higher risk of dropping out of school when a natural disaster occurs.
First: women in positions of power. Part of the preamble to the 2015 Paris Agreement identifies the “empowerment of women” as a critical aspect that must be upheld in decision making on climate change. We agree. A recent study suggested causation between women and substantial climate action when it showed that countries with a higher number of women politicians (such as Denmark, a country with over 37% female representation in parliament) pass more ambitious climate policies. This is not to say that men are incapable of passing bold legislation; it simply attests to the fact that dismantling historically male-dominated power structures to make way for the female perspective and voice has been proven to be beneficial when tackling climate change on the national level. While it is important to recognise that ‘women’ is a broad term–– in the sense that they are not a homogenised group who all share the same perspective–– many have logically reasoned that inserting women into discussions about finding solutions to climate change can broaden the scope of issues tackled by policy. For example, women have been at the forefront of conversations that have focused on bringing gender issues–– such as girls’ education in developing countries as it relates to climate disasters–– in government. In other words, women have been crucial for ensuring that policy and decision making takes the intersectional approach.