Mary Robinson, Verona Collantes, and other women on the frontlines of the climate crisis talk about what gender has to do with it
The time for debate has long passed: global warming is happening, and we know it will affect the next generation most severely. We’re all well aware of the disastrous effects it will have on plant life, polar bears, ice caps and infrastructure. There’s increased awareness of the ramifications for those in poverty, and of the fact that its impact will be racialised (despite poorer countries contributing the least to greenhouse gas emissions, they will be most seriously affected). But another intersection is continually overlooked in the conversation of who suffers most at the hands of climate change: gender. We’re lagging behind in the discourse generally, but the gender-climate link remains particularly sidelined, with many not realising there’s a connection at all.
“It’s not obvious – climate change and gender, what does that mean?” says Verona Collantes, an Intergovernmental Specialist with UN Women who works with governments to ensure a gender perspective is included when addressing environmental issues. “(People think), ‘We all pollute the the same air, we will all die the same way or we will all be impacted the same way’. In technical areas, they don’t see the connection, they don’t understand what it means – that there are differentiated impacts, that there are gender dimensions to those issues.”
‘INVISIBLE WOMEN’ WILL BE THE WORST AFFECTED
The “gender dimensions” to global warming are multi-layered and complex, but glaring. Across the world, women are disproportionately affected – they are 14 times more likely to die during natural disasters than men globally. UN figures show that 80 per cent of people displaced by climate change are women and following climate disasters, it is generally harder for poor women to recover their economic positions than poor men. In the wake of a disaster, rape, trafficking and maternal mortality rates all increase. There are even links to climate change and increased domestic violence. Mary Robinson, seventh President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, says the connection is something she only became aware of later in her career.
“I hadn’t made any connection when I was High Commissioner for Human Rights for five years,” she tells Dazed. “But working with small organisations in African countries that were working on women’s rights, I kept hearing mainly from women that things are so much worse (for them). It was mainly about putting food on the table when you have massive floods, when you have long periods of drought followed by flash flooding.”
It’s an issue hiding in plain sight. Women make up the majority of agricultural workers the world over, making them more vulnerable to the problems that result from extreme weather conditions. Due to the duties of water collection and food harvesting for instance, they are more exposed to certain mosquito-borne diseases in countries like Nigeria. In Bangladesh, local industries such as fishing are affected by an increase of salt levels in freshwater sources caused by flooding, affecting women’s financial independence as well as an ability to provide for their families.
CLIMATE CHANGE COULD MAKE EXISTING INEQUALITIES WORSE
“Living in a temperate climate like Ireland or country like the United States, we didn’t perceive the impact it was having on the most basic of rights of women globally,” Robinson says. “That women had to go further to get firewood, they had to go further to get water, they still had to put food on the table. A number of women said to me, ‘it’s God punishing us.’”
Given how female-focussed the difficulties are, you would be forgiven for feeling it is an extension of the curse of Eve.
Alongside creating new challenges for women, climate change further entrenches pre-existing systemic gender inequality. Some instances are unambiguous (“(Women) suffer more when you have a sudden flooding because they gather up their children, they have long skirts and they can’t run,” Robinson tells me.) Others are less obvious: in the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, the death rate for women was almost five times higher than men, in part because women had not been taught to swim. In some countries like Malawi, long droughts cause more families to struggle to afford to feed and house their children, leading to more child brides.
It’s important to look at the “root causes” of these outcomes, Collantes says, which are inextricably tied to women’s positions in society, and gender roles. “Why does this happen?” she says. “Well, women are expected to be the rescuers, the ones who should take care of the children, the elderly, the sick, even the animals, the properties. You come last and then maybe it’s too late for you to be able to protect yourself or run to safety.”
“We have to look at women’s roles and responsibilities, their rights, which then have implications on their ability to be able to protect themselves in danger, or their ability to be able to utilise resources,” she continues. “In many countries, especially in rural areas, they don’t know how to even read in the material that we present them. We think that we are all operating on the same field, but we’re not.”
“We have to imagine the world we want to see, the world we want to hurry toward” – Mary Robinson
WOMEN WORLDWIDE ARE ON THE FRONTLINES OF CHANGE
These disparities, though different, are not specific to the global south or developing nations. The same goes for industrialised countries: after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, black women were among the worst affected by flooding in Louisiana, and more women than men died during the 2003 European heatwave. Climate change worsens gender inequality, any and everywhere and women are neglected in the burgeoning conversation about adapting to it, despite being best placed to offer resolutions. But women are also leaders, innovators and agents of change.
Whilst they are worse affected, women are also at the forefront of addressing global warming, at every level. When Mary Robinson attended her first UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, she says it was “a very male, very technical world with no reference to gender.” The need to train both male and female policy-makers on bringing gender equality into the equation was apparent, as well as engaging grassroots women’s organisations. She and three United Nations Climate Change Conference presidents, Patricia Espinosa, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and Connie Hedegaard, formed the Troika+ of Women Leaders on Gender and Climate Change, a network of over 55 women leaders committed to working together on gender and global warming. The Troika+ played a crucial role in the “Doha Miracle” decision – an agreement to enhance the participation of women in climate change negotiations.
“Because these women were ministers of environment and energy and sometimes farm ministers and heads of agencies, we were able to persuade them to have grassroots women and indigenous women in their delegation, to get their voices in the room,” Robinson says. “That actually made a huge difference, because the delegates were mainly technical men. And they’d been at it so long they knew every technical point but they hadn’t lived the experience of coping. When they heard these women, it really made a difference.”
‘A MAN-MADE PROBLEM PROBLEM WITH A FEMINIST SOLUTION’
It is these stories of women’s proactiveness that Robinson prefers to highlight over victimhood. In her Mothers of Invention podcast, hosted by her and comedian Maeve Higgins, she focuses on the intersection between climate change and feminism, and climate change as a “man-made problem with a feminist solution”.
One of the women featured on the podcast is Neha Misra, co-founder of initiative Solar Sister, which supports women by providing access to clean, renewable energy to energy-poor communities affected by climate change. They also recruit and mentor over 2,200 female entrepreneurs to run small-scale clean energy businesses, providing them with an income that is not seasonally dependent in some of the most remote communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Access to energy, she tells me, makes a difference to everyday life in ways we don’t think about: milk production, for instance, is increased when dairy cows get more exposure to light.
She tells Dazed how a Solar Sister entrepreneur and health worker in Tanzania adapts when local women are giving birth. “Without having access to a reliable and affordable and clean source of energy, she shared with me how difficult it can be to help with deliveries, if there’s a woman in labour at night,” Misra says. “They have had to deliver babies by keeping those old fashioned brick Nokia phones in their mouth and pressing that with their teeth, so the only light during the labour is the backlight of that brick Nokia phone.”
THE FUTURE IS SOLIDARITY
Whether it be Katharine Wilkinson at Project Drawdown – a non-profit with a comprehensive plan to reverse the impact of global warming – or Indian women reviving traditional weaving so they can earn a living at home rather than trekking daily to find work, women are spearheading innovation. And amongst them there is a keen sense of kinship, sisterhood and support (every single woman we spoke to had referenced or recommended each other’s work, with mutual admiration). This solidarity is something Robinson hopes will be reflected more broadly in the overall fight against climate change.
“We have to imagine the world we want to see, the world we want to hurry toward,” she says. “It will be a relationship world. We have to relate with each other in solidarity in order to be able to do it. It will be a world where our children and grandchildren can be proud of us.”