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Empowering Women in the Face of Dual Challenges: Navigating Gender Inequality and the Climate Crisis

Empowering Women In The Face Of Dual Challenges: Navigating Gender Inequality And The Climate Crisis

Gender inequality, together with the climate crisis, is one of the most significant  challenges of our time. It poses threats to ways of life, livelihoods, health, safety, and security for people around the world. However, there is a fascinating story here about how gender dynamics and climate change are interdependent. It is stories of strength and struggle, resilience and vulnerability, that highlight the critical connection of gender and climate, far more so than statistical data and academic discourse. Women are powerful agents of change and continue to make increasing and significant contributions to sustainable development despite existing structural and sociocultural barriers. Therefore, in the wake of International Women’s Day, which was 8 March, we take a look at how climate change impacts women and girls, explore the pivotal role of women in climate action and leadership, and recognise how women can spearhead the journey towards a sustainable future.

Across the world, women depend more on, yet have less access to, natural resources. According to UN Women (2023), 3.1 billion women and girls, more than 90 percent of the world’s female population, live in countries characterised by low or middle women’s empowerment and low or middle performance in achieving gender parity. In these developing countries, women’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change is rooted in their limited access to and control over land and environmental resources, and their roles in caregiving and food production. Climate change can increase their workload and reduce the time available for education or income-generating activities, perpetuating cycles of poverty and dependence. According to Mukoni (2013), it is the women who are hit hard due to gender discrimination in the allocation of resources including nutrition and medicines. Moreover, it is the women and girls who are expected to look after the sick. For this reason, they often face exclusion from participation in political and household decision-making processes that directly impact their lives, have limited access to education, have a higher likelihood of living in poverty, and face negative influences of cultural norms related to gender roles (UN Women, 2023; Mukoni, 2013). 

Mukoni (2013) also mentions that women, in particular, experience a dual burden, as they are responsible for both the care of dependents and the sick, while also being expected to procure food and fuel for the household. Therefore, women also face significant health issues like the increased women’s susceptibility to stress-related illnesses and fatigue, and the rise of water levels resulting from climate change is expected to trigger a rise in waterborne illnesses like malaria and dengue fever. 

Moreover, environmental stressors can contribute to “climate migration”, the movement of people or communities from their homes or places of origin due to the adverse impacts of climate change. According to UN Women (2023), nearly 10 percent of the world’s population of women and girls is more likely to be displaced because of natural disasters caused by climate change. Women and girls are not only disposed to displacement but also face vulnerability in displacement in terms of violence as resource scarcity can intensify conflicts, domestic abuse, human trafficking, and other forms of gender-based violence (Tower, 2020).

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the imperative for inclusivity in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. While the range of strategies has broadened, these interventions must incorporate a gender perspective to ensure effectiveness. Regrettably, many of these projects are designed without consulting women, resulting in the marginalisation of women’s concerns and needs in the climate action agenda (Mukoni, 2013). Achieving climate equity necessitates that those in more privileged positions do not overshadow the voices of the less powerful.

Without a concentrated effort to empower women, they remain an underutilised resource in the fight against climate change. While some strategies claim to empower women, it is crucial to recognise that true empowerment entails the redistribution of power, and power cannot simply be bestowed upon individuals; it must be seized (Mukoni, 2013). This underscores the need for women to take the initiative in empowering themselves to achieve full empowerment.

Building upon Mukoni (2013), Norgaard and York (2005) imply that women’s distinctive views on ecological protection and their heightened awareness of environmental risks could offer unique and valuable perspectives in the fight against climate change. Research has consistently shown that women tend to express more robust support for environmental conservation and perceive various environmental risks more acutely than men (Norgaard & York, 2005). Furthermore, women’s active participation in environmental movements and their roles in advocating for sustainable policies highlight their potential to substantially impact the climate crisis (Norgaard & York, 2005). By acknowledging and fostering gender equality, we can harness the diverse knowledge, skills, and perspectives that women bring to the table, ultimately strengthening our collective response to the environmental challenges of our time.

When people are brought together to address problems, they bring a variety of information, opinions, and viewpoints. This means that people of different races, genders, and other characteristics offer different perspectives and experiences regarding the task at hand (Phillips, 2014). Regarding competencies and skills, women are particularly known to be strong in the soft skills required for business leadership. While technical knowledge and skills are important to career success, CEOs regularly rank soft skills as the most desirable professional qualities and can significantly impact the bottom line. For women in business, these soft skills and emotional intelligence provide a considerable competitive advantage.

However, according to the study by Taylor (2014), environmental organisations have made significant progress in gender diversity. The study found that the percentage of females in leadership positions in environmental organisations has increased over time, women occupied more than half of the 1,714 leadership positions studied in conservation and preservation organisations, and women also dominate the executive director’s position and have the greatest likelihood of becoming chair of the board in environmental grant-making foundations (Taylor, 2014).

In ongoing climate change discussions, indigenous women have expressed their deep commitment to the specific roles they believe they hold within the important framework of responsibilities in their communities (Whyte, 2014). These responsibilities may include safeguarding and passing on local ecological knowledge or spearheading political movements to foster harmonious coexistence with neighbouring communities. For these indigenous women, the duties they undertake in their communities can make them vulnerable to the consequences of climate change and other environmental changes (Whyte, 2014). However, their dedication to these responsibilities also drives them to become catalysts for adaptation and mitigation.

Empowering Women

Research shows that women’s empowerment and advancing gender equality can lead to more environmentally friendly decision-making at household and national levels, as countries with high representation of women in parliament are more likely to ratify international environment treaties (Norgaard & York, 2005).

Women and girls, when empowered, set in motion a chain reaction that resonates across communities and nations. In the context of developing countries, women constitute around 43 percent of the agricultural workforce. Given equal access to resources as men, women have the potential to boost their agricultural productivity by 20 to 30 percent, consequently increasing total agricultural output in these regions and potentially reducing global hunger by 12 to 17 percent (International Growth Centre, 2022). As pioneers in adopting new agricultural methods, first-line responders during crises, entrepreneurs in the green energy sector, and pivotal decision-makers within households, women bring invaluable perspectives to the table for more effective climate change risk management and adaptation.

Moreover, within the páramo ecosystem nestled in the Ecuadorian Andes, indigenous women have embarked on a journey of sustainable agricultural production and landscape stewardship aimed at rejuvenating the delicate ecosystem that has endured desertification and excessive grazing, rendering extensive areas barren and depleted (UN Women, 2022). According to UN Women (2022), these women-led initiatives breathe life back into the land and challenge gender preconceptions, fostering women’s active participation in community decision-making. As Bibiana Aido, UN Women Representative in Ecuador, aptly emphasises, “The páramo project underscores that discussions about climate change and sustainable development are incomplete without the inclusion of women.” (UN Women, 2022).

As mentioned, indigenous women have emerged as pioneering figures in environmental preservation, possessing invaluable wisdom and skills crucial for boosting resilience and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Embracing a greater representation of women in climate initiatives not only paves the way for a more sustainable and just future for all (UNFCC, 2023) but also leads to stronger, more resilient communities that are better equipped to face the challenges of climate change. Moreover, committing to the well-being and empowerment of women and girls yields extensive advantages for both communities and nations. Research indicates that countries boasting a significant presence of women in parliament are more inclined to ratify international environmental agreements (UNFCC, 2023).

Therefore, empowering women and ensuring their full participation in climate resilience efforts is a matter of justice and an essential strategy for building more sustainable and resilient communities.

Women’s leadership in climate action is a desirable addition and an essential component. Their unique knowledge and skills, often shaped by their experiences and societal roles, can significantly enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of climate response efforts. This underscores the importance of addressing women’s barriers in leadership positions and the urgent need to empower women and tackle gender inequalities.

The involvement of women in climate initiatives is not only a matter of justice but also a strategic imperative. Empowering women and ensuring their full participation in climate resilience efforts can bring tangible benefits, such as more environmentally friendly decision-making, increased agricultural productivity, and ratification of international environmental agreements.

In the face of the climate crisis, women are not just victims; they are powerful agents of change. Their leadership and contributions are not just essential but vital for building a sustainable and equitable future. As the world stands at a critical crossroads, it is not just an opportunity but a necessity for women to step into leadership roles, shape inclusive strategies, and lead the way toward a more resilient, just, and sustainable world for all. Women must not just participate but also take the lead in solving the climate crisis for our planet, communities, and future generations. 

As Magero says: “Recognise, applaud, publish and cheer on the brave women who have constantly advocated and promoted equitable, gender-focused and just climate action measures” (UN Women, 2022).

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