The monetary and infrastructural effects of climate change are incredibly apparent to the world as wildfires, floods, and storms increase in severity due to the worsening of climatic conditions. Swiss Re1, an insurance firm that also calculates the monetary cost of global disasters, estimated that approximately $337 billion in economic losses occurred due to natural disasters like these in 2017, which with climate change, will only increase in frequency. However, the cost of climate change is not just monetary. In fact, it is health risks that are more crucial than anything else. Climate change affects health through higher temperatures, “poor air quality, and extreme weather events, and meteorological changes that alter vector-borne disease, reduce water quality, and decrease food security.” These effects manifest themselves into illnesses such as asthma, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, dementia, malnutrition, among others.
Although it is clear that both men and women will bear the brunt of the health risks associated with climate change, due to their physiological, economic and social differences, women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men—primarily as they constitute the majority of the world’s poor and are more dependent for their livelihood on natural resources that are threatened by climate change, while simultaneously facing social, economic and political barriers that limit their ability to cope with natural disasters.
As noted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “women, especially those in poverty, face higher risks and experience a more significant burden of climate change impacts.” Firstly, women have elevated nutritional needs during menstruation and pregnancy, which leads to increased sensitivity to climate-related food insecurity. Moreover, women suffer from higher rates of anemia and malnutrition globally. In addition to health-related risks, a woman also sustains the economic blows caused by climate change. Women make up a majority of the world’s small farmers. Therefore, if the crops fail from either temperature increases, drought, or a decline in water quality, the expected result would be an increase in poverty and poor health, especially among women. According to a series of interviews conducted in Uganda by the UN Environment Program, as many forests have been turned into farms in the Insigiro District of Western Uganda, rain has become people’s worst enemy. “When it rains, my heart sinks,” says Jane, an entrepreneur who runs a village grocery shop in the area. These farms are not able to retain water during the heavy rainfall, resulting in floods damaging homes, crops, and small businesses.
Additionally, subjection and exposure to potentially harmful bacteria emanating from poor air quality and smog lead women to suffer from outsize rates of both respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and anemia. Most importantly, however, such the health risks posed by indoor stoves can lead to birth defects such as “stillbirth, intrauterine growth restriction, and congenital defects.” Thirdly, an almost bizarre study conducted in 2007 indicates that women are much more likely than men to be killed in natural disasters, 14 times to be precise. In fact, in the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh which killed 140,000 people, 90% of the victims were female. Specifically, pregnant women may find it harder to survive in a natural calamity. Moreover, as is elucidated in the study, certain societal pulls also affect women’s chances of survival, such as how wearing traditional clothing, like the Indian sari which is draped over the shoulder and wrapped around the waste, might hamper movement. This runs contrary to the popular notion that women and children are often granted safety from disasters first.
During climate-related disasters, as Dr. Richard Jackson, a professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles pointed out, “women bear the brunt more than men. Anytime there are mass movements, which is what happens when you have famine, floods, fires, and other disasters, women are more vulnerable, women end up doing much of the physical labor of gathering and preparing food, fuel, and water.” After catastrophe has struck, due to lack of savings or land, women are usually placed in unsafe, overcrowded shelters. According to the UN Women’s Watch, in the aftermath of a disaster, women and girls are at a higher risk of domestic violence and sexual abuse, as well as mood disorders and weak economic recovery, especially when they are below the poverty line. In another district in Uganda, as illustrated by the interview responses of 26 women, domestic violence seemed to be a common occurrence, intensified more so in the dry seasons and droughts. The men want to sell the crops that women grow, and often beat their wives to gain possession of them.
Forced migration also constitutes an all too often outcome of natural disasters, resulting in higher death rates for women in the least developed countries as they often do not have proper resources. For instance, 800,000 people were displaced by Cyclone Nargis that struck the Irrawaddy Delta region in Myanmar in May 2008. Similarly, 600,000 to 700,000 people migrate annually from the desertification of dryland regions of Mexico. A staggering 80% of people displaced by climate change around the globe are women.
Finally, these natural disasters caused by climate change also tend to affect women’s education more so than that of their male counterparts. This is well illustrated by the fact that as fresh water sources dry up as a result of climate change, women in some communities have to spend a significant portion of their day trying to find clean water or collect wood, the time they would’ve otherwise spent in school. As the UN Women’s Watch says13, “Girls are sometimes kept home from school to help gather fuel, perpetuating the cycle of disempowerment.” This cycle is only intensified when fuel becomes rarer and more essential with climate change. In the same Ugandan study, one participant in the discussion reported that a child had died on her way to school due to flooding. Jane further elucidates, “Floods also bring water-borne diseases such as cholera, and as a result, some children are forced to skip school.”
Gender-sensitive responses to climate change are the need of the hour. The UN Women’s Watch says that “These efforts should focus on: reducing women’s vulnerability, in tandem with men’s susceptibilities; and enlisting women as key environmental actors in natural disaster management decision-making processes, alongside men, tapping on women’s skills, resourcefulness, and leadership in mitigation and adaptation efforts.” There is not yet an integrated approach to climate change that takes factors such as poverty and gender inequality into account. The Sustainable Development Goals, set up by the United Nations in 2015, aiming towards building a more prosperous, more equal, and a more secure world by the year 2030, target every issue of focus separately, not in an interdisciplinary fashion. Even though the UNFCCC has now called for a ‘gender action plan’ to include a gendered angle in technology, finance, mitigation, adaptation, and capacity, the framework of the plan is faulty which leads to its failure. The only program that recognizes women as essential stakeholders in risk reduction and takes climate change into account for women’s health and safety is the one implemented by The Sendai Framework. This program works as it has 38 indicators to track its progress and has an integrated approach to the SDGs, and it sets a precedent for other programs to follow suit.
Apart from the work done by these organizations, it is also imperative for the general population and the governments around the world to recognize and work towards reducing women’s vulnerability to climate change and the natural disasters it hastens. The first step is to ensure women’s participation and recognize their role as powerful agents of social change and utilize their ideas and intelligence in any project aimed towards combating climate deterioration. Second, educating women is a vital piece of ensuring the success of the strategy mentioned above. Moreover, the collection of relevant data should merge gender and climate factors more accurately. This would not only help better the predictive modeling for climate change interventions related to women’s health and economic prosperity, but also help women, and therefore their countries and communities, overcome any setbacks caused due to change in climate conditions.
- “Natural Disasters in 2017 Cost Record $144 Billion: Swiss Re.” The Local. April 11, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.thelocal.ch/20180411/natural-disasters-in-2017-cost-record-144-billion-swiss-re-insurance.
- Sorensen, Cecilia, Virginia Murray, Jay Lemery, and John Balbus. “Climate Change and Women’s Health: Impacts and Policy Directions.” PLOS ONE. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1002603.
- orensen, Cecilia, Virginia Murray, Jay Lemery, and John Balbus. “Climate Change and Women’s Health: Impacts and Policy Directions.” PLOS ONE. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1002603.
- “When It Rains, My Heart Sinks”: Climate Change Takes a Toll in Uganda.” UN Environment. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/when-it-rains-my-heart-sinks-climate-change-takes-toll-uganda.
- “Gender, Climate Change, and Health.” World Health Organization. 2014. Accessed January 22, 2019. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/144781/9789241508186_eng.pdf;jsessionid=841B46A272370F5A0F348547F4F9730F?sequence=1
- “Burden of Disease Attributable to Major Air Pollution Sources in India.” Health Effects Institute. January 25, 2018. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.healtheffects.org/publication/gbd-air-pollution-india.
- Neumayer, Eric, and Thomas. “The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters: The Impact of Catastrophic Events on the Gender Gap in Life Expectancy, 1981–2002.” LSE Research Online. September 01, 2007. Accessed January 22, 2019. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/3040/.
- “Why Climate Change Is Worse for Women (and How We Can Make It Better).” Why Are Straws Bad for The Environment? | 1 Million Women. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.1millionwomen.com.au/blog/why-climate-change-worse-women-and-how-we-can-make-it-better/.
- Pearson, Catherine. “Why Climate Change Is a Women’s Issue.” The Huffington Post. May 31, 2017. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-climate-change-is-a-womens-issue_us_592eedcfe4b0e09b11eccfff.
- “Women, Gender Equality, and Climate Change.” UN Women’s Watch Fact Sheet. Accessed January 22, 2019. http://www.un.org/womenwatch/feature/climate_change/downloads/Women_and_Climate_Change_Factsheet.pdf
- “When It Rains, My Heart Sinks”: Climate Change Takes a Toll in Uganda.” UN Environment. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/when-it-rains-my-heart-sinks-climate-change-takes-toll-uganda