What’s the connection between climate change and gender equality?
27 January 2023, Category: All insights, News, Tags: adaptation, climate change, climate finance, climate refugees, displacement, gender, gender equality, migration, project design, women, women and girls
Climate change and gender equality are inextricably linked through the experiences of women and girls. Jack Cribb discusses why and how climate finance can be employed to help.
In a 2022 article by gal-dem, the independent magazine owned and run by women and non-binary people of colour, journalists spoke to native Kenyan women who were forced to leave their homes and walk 250 kilometres to find refuge from the extreme droughts that were affecting their homelands. They left their homes when continuing arid conditions dried up local water sources, resulting in the death of the family’s herd of goats.
This is not a unique phenomenon, with the current numbers of internally displaced persons in the East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region totalling 11,712,446* (at time of writing). Data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that, from the years 2008 to 2021, 30.5 million people have been displaced globally by weather-related disasters. In the World Bank’s 2018 Groundswell report, it estimated that by 2050, Sub-Saharan Africa would account for 29-86 million internal climate migrants.
It is women and girls who are disproportionately affected by the effects of extreme weather events. The UN Environment estimates that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. We exist in a world where these demographics are more dependent on, yet less able to access, natural resources.
But why is it that women and girls are the more vulnerable demographic when it comes to the destructive effects of climate change? How can we better understand the connection between climate change and gender equality in order to provide solutions?
- How are we defining gender equality in relation to climate change and finance?
- The link between gender inequality and climate change
- Climate change and intersectional justice
- Reducing gender inequality through climate finance
- Climate adaptation and the role of women
How are we defining gender equality in relation to climate change and finance?
Gender and gender equality are terms with a variety of interpretations worldwide, and are dependent on context, demographic, geographic location, and even language. It’s even more complex when applied to finance projects, with consulting bodies, funding bodies, and non/governmental organisations using different applications of the term. For example, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) strives to take a ‘gender-sensitive approach’ within its adaptation and mitigation projects.
The WHO defines gender as ‘the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed.’ That is generally accepted, however doesn’t truly account for the nuances experienced along the wider gender spectrum. In short, gender is how a person identifies in relation to their lived experiences, and is mainly associated with the gender ascribed at birth, but it is ultimately a deeply complex and important social construct.
Gender equality, on the other hand, is the recognition of those different experiences and the hierarchy that has developed over the course of human history. The WHO expands upon this:
Gender is hierarchical and produces inequalities that intersect with other social and economic inequalities. Gender-based discrimination intersects with other factors of discrimination, such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability, age, geographic location, gender identity and sexual orientation, among others. This is referred to as intersectionality.
Another equally valid interpretation of gender equality is the recognition of the different experiences and lack of representation, agency, power, and independence of women and girls. This is associated with the struggle for gender equality by women, girls, and allies of other genders around the world.
Within the climate finance sector, gender and gender quality are routinely associated with these ideas, and the agreements made by policymakers and organisations of influence, such as the GCF and the United Nations. The GCF’s Gender Policy takes direct influence from treaties such as the Paris Agreement, writing ‘The Gender Policy is also guided by Article 7.5 of the Paris Agreement, where parties acknowledge that that adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach’.
When working with gender-inclusive approaches, it’s important to analyse the contextual placement of ‘gender’ and ‘gender equality’ in order to reach and equitable conclusion, as there will naturally exist certain provisions within any decision-making process that account for the experiences and needs of different genders.
The link between gender inequality and climate change
Climate change is perceived as a ‘threat multiplier’, meaning that it has the capacity to increase and/or worsen current socioeconomic or political issues. For example, in the past, water scarcity has been shown to lead to violent conflict in areas such as the Euphrates-Tigris Basin. The conflict between the three countries that have access to these water sources—Turkey, Iraq, and Syria—continues today, and with rainfall levels predicted to decline by up to 40mm per year by mid-century, one can only expect these tensions to be exacerbated unless managed successfully.
Women and girls are at the greatest risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), trafficking, other forms of violence, and low access to resources and economic, social, or political agency, with the 2020 CARE report stating that ‘climate extremes exacerbate existing inequalities, vulnerabilities and negative gender norms’.
According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), women are more vulnerable to a changing climate than men due to several interlinked reasons:
They make up the majority of the world’s economically poor, do most of the agricultural work, bear unequal responsibility for household food security, carry a disproportionate burden for harvesting water and fuel for everyday survival, and rely on threatened natural resources for their livelihoods. Moreover, they have unequal access, control and ownership to these natural resources, and are often excluded from important decision and policy-making forums and institutions that govern them.
Unfortunately, long-standing disparities brought about by inequality tend to be so ingrained within a society that they are hard to circumvent and even harder to tackle. In the aftermath of a climate-related disaster, women and girls have less access to the aid they require.
Women and girls also face the greatest health issues when it comes to climate change. In analysis by Carbon Brief, it was found that almost 70% of studies on the subject of climate change and health found that women were more ‘affected by health impacts associated with climate change than men’ and that ‘countries with a high level of gender inequality generally have a higher vulnerability to the negative impacts of climate change’.
Climate change and intersectional justice
The experiences of women and girls when exposed to the effects of climate change are myriad. What we mean by that is that vulnerability is not uniform across the globe, and what is a true statement for one community may not be true for another. It is generally accepted that the most acute risks will be faced by indigenous and Afro-descendant women, elderly women, those in the LGBTQIA+ community, and those living in rural areas, especially ones prone to weather-related risks.
A little considered issue for climate action, be it in the form of grassroots support groups or nationally-led development projects, is how it accounts for gender and the experiences and needs of non-heteronormative groups. Structural change is the most successful when it accounts for these needs and experiences, as only then will it address the concerns of the statistically most vulnerable.
This is why, going forward, more and more academics, policymakers, and activists are advocating for an intersectional approach to solving these problems. This kind of approach analyses societal issues by taking into account the intersection of several systems of power and how they interplay and react with the lived experience of multiple communities and demographics. For example, systems of oppression such as patriarchy and white supremacy do not exist in isolation, but rather exist in cooperation to achieve their implicit end goals. Intersectional approaches try to determine exactly how these systems interact, and untangle them through practical development.
Using this kind of approach, researchers, analysts, consulting bodies and more, can gain a three-dimensional view of a problem and work to solve it in an ultimately equitable manner. At the end of the day, what we receive is a more complete picture of the situation at hand.
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Reducing gender inequality through climate finance
The future increase of gender inequality, climate migration, and displacement is inevitable if not prepared for now. Such preparation must produce fair, equitable, and protective solutions for all involved. This can be done in two ways, by providing support for women who choose to stay in climate-vulnerable areas, and to those who decide to leave them.
The Climate and Migration Coalition has developed an interesting take on this, viewing climate migration as a unique adaptation strategy, writing ‘The idea behind migration as adaptation is that people move from high-risk places, to locations where they are safer from the impacts of climate change. Rather than this happening in an ad-hoc way, the idea behind migration as adaptation is that people are assisted in doing this.’ While this is a legitimate idea, it does come with legitimate concerns for women. Such statements can be made in a gender blind way, as migration is not a panacaea for climate problems. As the IOM writes, it is especially difficult for women ‘to wilfully migrate, as migration requires economic capacities and social resources that are not available to everyone’.
Without support in the form of accessible finance, the burden of survival and adaptation rests on both individual men and women, and international institutions best placed to support the migration or adaptation of women would have no insight into or accountability over the process.
Calls for such funding have already been made at the institutional level. Many have seen it come under the auspices of a loss and damage fund, such as the one called for at 2022’s COP27. On this, Professor Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), stated:
“We need a global fund that is internationally recognised under the UN’s climate change framework, to provide finance to poorer countries dealing with the adverse impacts of human-induced climate change. Displacement resulting from this is a category of loss and damage and such people need to be helped through this funding,”
One of the main issues going ahead will be the framing of SGBV and climate migration as key funding areas for a loss and damage fund, as there is currently no global agreement or treaty that recognises the rights of migrants crossing international borders to escape from climate change. The closest in action at the moment is the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, first released in 1998, which states:
Internally displaced persons shall enjoy, in full equality, the same rights and freedoms under international and domestic law as do other persons in their country. They shall not be discriminated against in the enjoyment of any rights and freedoms on the ground that they are internally displaced.
Unfortunately, like many international agreements, these principles are not legally binding. However, there are specific inclusions regarding women, such as:
- ‘The authorities concerned shall endeavour to involve those affected, particularly women, in the planning and management of their relocation’;
- ‘Special attention should be paid to the health needs of women, including access to female health care providers and services, such as reproductive health care, as well as appropriate counseling for victims of sexual and other abuses’.
Climate adaptation and the role of women
Women play an incredibly important role in the process of adapting to climate change worldwide. The level of vulnerability exhibited by a certain community is based on how able it is to adapt to current and future change. Generally, higher-income countries are seen to have a higher adaptive capacity than lower-income countries, and adaptive capacity itself is influenced by economic health, institutional capacity, and access to resources, amongst other things.
It is also influenced by factors such as individual income, education, and political agency. In many countries, women are unable to access these things, which means there is a distinct gendered gap in which demographics can work towards adaptation. There is also the added burden on women when seen as primary caregivers, which can limit their ability to act as decision-makers.
Because of this, countries with higher levels of gender inequality are therefore less able to act on climate change. Conversely, improvements in gender equality allow for more solid contributions to improving climate resilience.
When we view gender equality as a specific and important lynchpin for bridging the gap between our current situation and securing climate resilience worldwide, it makes an even more compelling argument for seeing gender equality as vital for the safe and equitable continuation of society.
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* While this number is accurate according to the UNHCR, what is not stated is what percentage of IDPs are displaced specifically due to climate change.