The divide between men and women can be seen and experienced in almost everything. Socialization has a crucial role in creating and deepening these discrepancies across genders. Women have mostly been disadvantaged due to systemic oppression and societal barriers that they face in everyday life. Their role in different fields is scrutinized and dictated by various factors- physical, psychological, cultural, social and economic. As a result of various vulnerabilities that they experience, women have become primary victims of climate change and climate change-induced risks and disasters.
The underrepresentation of women in various arenas, multiple work burden imposed upon them along with lack of accessibility of resources, education and job opportunities are major reasons why women have become the prime targets of climate change. Climate change impacts on women can emanate in various forms- from agricultural unproductivity, increased work burden, diseases and health to disaster-induced risks and death.
With the emergence of the global climate crisis as an issue that is well and fine in front of our sight, climate-induced disasters are no strangers to the world. The United Nations estimates that 80% of people displaced by climate are women. Records show African American women were among the worst affected by flooding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005; 2004 Tsunami in Srilanka, India, and Indonesia saw a vast distinction in the survival of men as compared to woman by 3:1 ratio; 1991 cyclone and flood resulted in five times higher death rate of women than men; more women died during the 2003 heatwave in Europe.
The trend of higher death rates of women than men as a result of climate-induced disasters indicates the vulnerability of women. Research suggests that women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster than men. Their supposed obligation to their families and the need to protect them first from disasters puts women in a disadvantaged position ultimately resulting in their death. Further, the sexualization of women’s bodies from an early age and a feeling of shame imposed upon them also refrains women from being rescued from disasters. Similar reasons resulted in the death of many women during the 2018 Kerala flooding. Since the massive inflow of water had deranged the clothing of women, they were adamant to be rescued due to the shame of being exposed in that way in front of people. Such rigid socialization and cultural barriers imposed upon women eventually led them to choose death.
Not just death, but post-disaster repercussions for women are also severe. As women mostly act as caretakers of the household and families who do most of the household chores, their exposure to disaster-induced risks is greater. Especially during instances of drought and flood women are forced to travel long distances to fetch water which makes them physically, mentally and emotionally vulnerable. Moreover, the risks increase in emergency shelters where they become victims of sexual assaults, rape, and violence. Further, a report also states that divorced women face more scrutiny during disaster events and are not allowed relief materials post-disaster due to their failure to establish a legal identity for themselves.
While various reasons exist behind women being highly jeopardized by climate change, the failure to include them in climate change adaptation measures is a grave mistake that we must overcome. Policies, plans, and programs cannot be implemented for combating climate change without including women- who include half of the world- in decision making. A report on Women and the Environment from the European Institute for Gender Equality states that women and men think differently about climate change solutions. While women agree on changing their daily habits to reduce effects of climate change, men seek for higher alternatives such as the use of electric cars, nuclear energy as an alternative source of energy and a higher energy tax. Women tend to bring empathy and inclusiveness in their decisions which results in a more sustainable outcome. The measures that women agree on controlling the effects of climate change are more realistic, doable and convenient.
To mitigate the impact of climate change on women, it is important to include them in core decision making through different channels. The average representation of women in national and global climate negotiating bodies is below 30% which is a disappointing figure. Without the involvement of women, a gendered perspective on climate change and climate change policies cannot be achieved and implemented. The EU states that the failure in including gender dimension in climate justice is due to the fact that women are underrepresented in climate change policymaking and negotiations as representatives of government and civil society organizations.
The knowledge and experience of local women from developing countries are equally instrumental in proposing and implementing sustainable solutions to combat climate change. Although women have been portrayed as the victims of climate change if provided the right avenue, opportunity, and platform they can become agents of change. In rural communities, women act as the managers of natural resources and they understand the sensitivity of the environmental issues leading up to climate change.
For example, a local community under the leadership of a woman named Constance in Uganda reduced their community’s impact on the environment through replanting trees they once cut down for firewood. The new roots of mango, orange, avocado trees were useful in preventing soil from washing away in flood. As a result, the community experienced less damage from floods and could prevent food scarcity. The local knowledge and experience that women possess must be imperatively considered while framing national and international policies and guidelines against climate change.
Therefore, climate change has become a gendered issue today. Gender mainstreaming of climate change policies is required to have a more balanced approach to the issue and combat its repercussions. For this purpose, bringing women to the table, having their voices heard and materializing their experience and knowledge is crucial.