During last week’s 22nd UN Climate Change Conference, world leaders convened in Morocco to make progress on the commitments made in the Paris Climate Agreement. This conference, however, had a new item on the agenda. For the first time, the UN formally responded to the need for a serious consideration of women’s issues to form a gender-responsive global climate change policy, which has mostly been lacking in the conversations regarding policy implementations.
Climate change, more so than people realize, creates conditions that exacerbate gender inequalities, especially in developing nations. Agricultural communities that rely heavily on predictable weather for cyclical incomes suffer the most devastating hits to their already-inconsistent harvests from temperature increases. This climate insecurity has severe effects on poverty, and in turn, women in particular. For example, in Bangladesh, where extreme weather patterns have caused increases in floods, droughts, and river erosion, greater poverty has led to an environment where impoverished families sometimes have no choice but to marry off their young girls. According to the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to uproot their families from their villages and relocate to the slums of Dhaka. Education in the slums for these “climate-change refugees” is significantly more expensive, and when it comes to schooling, sons are prioritized over daughters. The likelihood that families can afford to educate their girls is slim when funds are limited, and in these scenarios, girls will be married off earlier if they cannot be provided for. In a country where, according to a governmental survey, 65% of women are victims of physical domestic abuse, child marriages create life-threatening risks for young girls who become trapped in dangerous, violent settings with no way out.
In Africa, where women make up half of the agricultural force, female farmers, compared to their male counterparts, already face productivity challenges due to a lack of resources. Droughts and extreme weather conditions increasingly threaten the health of their crops. Water scarcity and lack of access to clean water means declining standards for women’s hygiene and sanitation, especially affecting maternal health. Women in developing countries have to journey an average of 6 kilometers a day to collect clean water, which means less time spent in school or on productive economic activities.
We’ve also seen that increasing frequencies of climate-related natural disasters lead to spikes in sexual exploitation and human trafficking. When economic constraints create desperate circumstances, gender-based violence escalates in urban slums and rural areas.
The disproportionate effects of climate change on women leaves them exposed to unique challenges and vulnerabilities that haven’t been adequately addressed. More research is needed to investigate how climate change is affecting women and girls and how to craft policy that can focus on these issues. There are still not nearly enough women at the table when it comes to the decision-making process for climate change policy; women are a minority among UN delegates. This conference, however, is taking steps in the right direction to tackle these problems.
The Paris Agreement last year had promised to promote “[the equal representation of men and women] in all aspects of the Convention process and for climate action to respond to the differentiated needs, experiences, priorities and capacities of women and men.” In Morocco, Tuesday, November 15, was designated as the conference’s official Gender Day. The Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) announced the release of a new app called the Gender Climate Tracker, in conjunction with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland and Switzerland and the Global Gender and Climate Alliance. The app aims to “empower decision-makers and advocates alike to translate policies into action and hold governments accountable” by tracking women’s involvement and participation numbers in climate diplomacy, as well as “compiling policies, mandates, research, decisions and actions related to gender and climate change.”
Our international response to climate change must promote human rights and empower women and girls. It is crucial that the steps taken in last week’s UN conference and the Paris Agreement are translated into concrete gender-responsive actions and inclusion of women decision-makers in the implementation of the policy that will protect the health of our planet.
Iris Kim is a sophomore studying business and applied analytics. Her <strong> WOMAN </strong> column runs every other Monday.