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The nexus of climate change and gender equality: a call for interconnected solutions

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By Giulia Marzetti

· 6 min read

Introduction: climate change as a gendered issue

The effects of climate change are real. With El Niño breaking heat records and July 2023 having recorded the highest temperature ever on planet Earth, we are witnessing first-hand the impact of climate change. However, the effects of climate change are not equal for everyone. 

Climate change is not gender-neutral.

Climate change is a “threat multiplier”, meaning it exacerbates social, political and economic tensions that are already present, specifically in fragile and conflict-affected settings.

If we look at climate change through the lens of intersectionality, the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other, it appears that climate change risks are acute for indigenous and Afro-descendent women and girls, older women, LGBTIQ+ people, women and girls with disabilities, migrant women, and those living in rural, remote, conflict and disaster-prone areas.

In 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its 6th assessment report where extensive research was carried out to link the effects of climate change to social characteristics. The report stated that: 

  • Across sectors and regions, the most vulnerable people and systems have been disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change
  • Vulnerability at different spatial levels is exacerbated by inequity and marginalisation linked to gender, ethnicity, low income or combinations thereof, especially for many Indigenous Peoples and local communities

Why are women more exposed to climate change effects? 

Let’s look at the first example of how women are penalised by the effects of climate change. Agriculture is the most important employment sector for women in low- and lower-middle income countries and women and girls are responsible for water collection duties. Periods of drought and floods put added pressure on women and girls to secure income and resources for their families and girls have to leave school to help their mothers manage the increased burden.

Women across both hemispheres make up the majority of the world’s poor. They earn less and have less access to education and resources which are pivotal to protecting them from the effects of climate change.

According to the UN, women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a natural disaster. 

When natural disasters strike, women are less likely to survive and more likely to be injured due to persistent gender inequalities that have created disparities in information, mobility, decision-making, and access to resources and training. 

For example, when cyclone Gorky hit Bangladesh in 1991, 90% of the fatalities were women. 

In the 2004 Asian Tsunami that wreaked havoc across a dozen countries across the Indian Ocean, 70% of the fatalities were women.

Women are also more vulnerable in the aftermath of natural disasters where they are less able to access relief and assistance, further threatening their livelihoods, wellbeing and recovery, and creating a vicious cycle of vulnerability to future disasters. This is what happened in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina passed New Orleans, where a vicious circle of inequalities left many women in poverty.

According to the UN, women and girls constitute a significant portion of climate-induced migrants, facing distinct challenges such as increased risks of violence, loss of social networks, and limited access to resources. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) stresses the importance of recognizing and addressing these gender-specific vulnerabilities in migration policies.

Health effects of climate change on women 

But women’s health is also most affected by climate change. 

In the Indian subcontinent, it is common practice among women and girls to avoid drinking water during heat waves as the limited access to secure toilets leaves them more vulnerable to gender-based violence.

Nearly 700,000 pregnant women in Pakistan were deprived of maternal healthcare during the floods of 2022.

Just in March 2022, a group of elderly Swiss women sued their government at the European Court of Human Rights over Switzerland's inaction on climate change, claiming that rising temperatures put elderly women at higher risk of dying during heatwaves.

Women as agents of change 

Despite being especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, women's experiences and perspectives are crucial for adaptation through their experience, responsibilities and strengths. The Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 already defined the link between gender, the environment and sustainable development, and asserted that women have a strategic role to play in the development of sustainable and ecologically sound consumption and production patterns, including the need for women to participate on an equal basis in making decisions about the environment at all levels. In 2017, the European Parliament called for a motion on women, gender equality and climate justice.

The way forward: gender mainstreaming of climate solutions

We need to embed gender considerations in mitigation and adaptation to climate change and in designing technologies and solutions.

Yet, according to the Guardian, a mere 0.01% of global funding is spent on initiatives that touch women and climate change.

We cannot build solutions to global problems without the input and perspectives of 50% of the global population. From the simplest technologies to the most complex ones, technologies are still being created with inherent gender biases. Think about Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), a simple technological solution for protection. A UK study from the Trades Union Congress shows that 70% of PPE, including medical protective equipment, is not suited for women. How are women meant to build and maintain renewable energy plants without properly sized PPE? 

Increasing the proportion of women and girls studying and working in STEM fields is crucial for a just transition.

Advance women’s representation in climate policy and decision-making

A variety of studies have proven that when women lead negotiations, there are better outcomes. The famous Paris Agreement in 2015 was shepherded by the then UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres.

Yet, women are currently underrepresented in politics and strategic decision-making generally, as well as in climate politics more specifically. To close this gap, we should all promote the effective inclusion of women in political spaces, including by nominating, sponsoring, and of course, voting for female candidates.

A call for action

Climate change and gender equality are inextricably linked, with women often bearing the greatest burdens. Achieving climate justice requires recognizing the different experiences and vulnerabilities embedded in gender norms and inequalities. It is up to us to advocate and build more equitable systems able to transcend differences and inequalities. It is imperative that governments, international organizations, civil society, corporations and individuals work together to address climate change and gender equality simultaneously to create a more inclusive and sustainable future. Only by doing so can we ensure a just and resilient future for generations.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Giulia Marzetti is an engineer who has crafted a portfolio career as a consultant, project manager and policy officer in sustainable transport, energy storage, and industrial transformation. As project and policy officer for the European Commission, she managed over €80 million portfolio of sustainable innovation projects in Europe fostering a green. She regularly speaks at high-level events and forums such as UNECE, UN COP, GSTI.C and We Make Future Forum.

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