It is widely acknowledged that climate change will not impact everyone equally. As global warming undermines security and displaces populations worldwide, it is the most vulnerable groups in society who will feel these changes most acutely.
Despite remarkable progress in women’s rights over the last century, the structural inequalities and prejudices faced by women around the world continue to threaten their ability to respond to the impacts of climate change.
As women make up around 70% of people living below the poverty line worldwide, it is easy to see why this might be case. When extreme weather events like droughts or flooding strike, it is the poorest communities who find it hardest to recover from the loss of homes, livelihoods and natural resources. In fact, the UN has suggested that up to 80% of climate refugees are women.
However, there are many more reasons why women appear to bear of the brunt of climate breakdown. As the primary caretakers in many families, women and girls are often the first to go hungry during times of food shortage, as they sacrifice their own diet in order to prevent other family members becoming malnourished.
Similarly, during natural disasters, women are more likely to die than men, often because they haven’t been taught how to swim, they fear leaving the house unattended, or they do not have access to the same connections and resources as their male counterparts. In many cases, women prioritise the safety of their children and relatives above their own, hence hindering their ability to protect themselves during catastrophic events.
The lack of female representation in politics around the world also means that climate policies are often not designed with women in mind. As few women are present in local or national environmental planning, gender inequality remains unaddressed, and women continue to lack access to the resources they need.
It is therefore unsurprising that, with the escalation of the climate crisis over the last few years, it has often been women who have decided to take matters into their own hands. Faced with threats to their communities and ways of living, women around the globe are challenging governments to take environmental issues seriously.
For example – let’s take a journey to Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes of North America. This leafy, tranquil island is home not only to multiple bears (it has the highest black bear density in Ontario), but also to the 15-year old indigenous activist Autumn Peltier.
Peltier is a member of the Wikwemikong First Nation, and after learning that First Nation communities were unable to drink their own water as a result of pollution, she began campaigning for water conservation. She has spoken at the UN multiple times about the effects of water pollution, the need to reduce our use of plastic and the lack of access to safe water for indigenous populations.
Autumn Peltier. Photo Credit: Stephanie Peltier, accessed on Global Landscapes Forum
Another noteworthy activist is Ridhima Pandey, who in 2017 had the courage to file a petition against the Indian government for failing to take action on climate change. She decided to do so following the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, which caused widespread devastation in the area of Northern India where she lives and resulted in thousands of deaths. Although the petition was ignored, she now travels to schools around India to raise awareness about climate change and motivate other children to get involved.
Of course, there are many more female activists, ranging from the eco-feminist Oladosu Adenike in Nigeria to youth climate striker Greta Thunberg in Sweden. Plus, alongside these campaigners are the thousands of women worldwide who are using their knowledge about locating resources, growing crops and strengthening communities to adapt in the face of new challenges posed by climate change.
It’s clear that the solutions to the climate crisis cannot just come from the men in power. They need to be holistic, wide-reaching and formed in consultation with local communities, while making sure that a variety of voices, including those of women, indigenous people and people of colour, are involved in the process.
Ultimately, the message is obvious – you cannot design effective policy if you exclude the input of 50% of the population.