Women are more affected by the impacts of climate change than men. But given the chance, they can play a big part in finding solutions to fight it.
Did you know that women are more likely to die in natural disasters than men? In fact, it’s just one amongst other direct effects of climate change and environmental impacts women suffer from. For example, according to the UN, 80% of those displaced by climate change are women. As the link between women and climate change is still too rarely addressed, this article will give you some good reasons to think about it more in-depth.
1. Women harm the environment less, but do more against climate change
Overall, women emit fewer greenhouse gases, and therefore contribute less to global warming and its effects than men. For example, in OECD countries, women are more likely to be sustainable consumers, committed to recycling, and choosing energy-efficient options. Researchers at Yale University suspect a wide variety of explanations, “including differences in gender socialisation and the resulting different value systems (e.g., altruism, compassion), perceptions of risk and vulnerability, and feminist beliefs, including a commitment to equality, fairness and social justice.”
Women really are more into sustainability – one reason for that might be that most climate protests work in a decentralized and grassroots manner – and women benefit from that. There are no structures that have been established for decades that prevent women from becoming active. Committed women can focus their energy on content instead of having to fight for the right to be able to participate in decision-making at all.
That leads us to the female leadership of the current movements: Especially Greta Thunberg is a great idol, but she is not the only leading figure in the FFF-Movement, as other countries show: In Germany, Luisa Neubauer is the most prominent figure of the movement, but Anna Taylor from the UK, Anouna de Wever from the Netherlands and Kristin Siil and Kertu Birgit Anton from Estonia are also very well-known figures. Female leaders empower other girls and women to speak up as well, which consequently leads to a larger ratio of girls and women at the so-called “climate strikes”.
2. Women are more affected and more vulnerable to climate change than men
The funny – and at the same time, very sad and unfair thing is that although women contribute less to climate change and do more against it, they are more likely than men to be affected by it, as studies show. Regarding climate change, women in developing countries in particular suffer the most. The cultural gendered division of work traditionally burdens women and girls with hard work for the housekeeping. They depend on natural resources for their tasks and duties in a very particular way, due to their traditional household roles and caring responsibilities, such as collecting firewood or water.
Women in developing countries are also often responsible for agricultural work. Unfortunately, as forests are felled and droughts increase the walking distance to the nearest water source, women have to sacrifice more and more time and strength on these tasks. As men often leave rural areas to find work in towns, these women are left behind and a “feminization of responsibilities” takes place. They have to take over even more caring tasks in their community and are also held personally responsible if the harvest is poor. This can lead to violence against these women.
3. Women are put at higher risks of violence, sexual assault, and diseases in times of climate change
As climate changes, worldwide migration increases. People are forced to leave their homes as their livelihood is lost, which happens especially after natural disasters. Women, as opposed to men, are more bound to their homes since they have to look after children and extended family members and cannot leave their homes as quickly as men. Often, women have less socioeconomic power as well, which is another hurdle to moving.
Moreover, the risk of sexual abuse of women is much higher during natural disasters and while fleeing. Also, women in many societies face social restrictions that make it impossible for them to escape, e.g. they cannot swim or have obstacles to seeking help. For example, emergency shelters set up during natural disasters are usually cramped and lead to physical contact that is not seen as appropriate for women in these societies. To avoid this, some women prefer to stay at home where they are exposed to the forces of nature. In addition, bad hygienic conditions and polluted water after natural disasters increase the emergence of diseases, which leads to more caring tasks for women, as they have to look after their sick family members. Also, women giving birth under these conditions are much more likely to die.
4. Many men profit from industries accelerating climate change – but don’t want to change their habits
Women, indigenous groups, and other socially marginalized groups, e.g. LGBTQ+, already suffer from structural disadvantages around the world. As climate change increases social gaps and inequalities in both developing and developed countries, these people notice bad developments directly and experience it firsthand. They generally have less socio-economic power to enforce their interests or put themselves at risk when trying to do so. As their needs are less regarded, it is even more difficult for them when society changes from climate change. That might also be an explanation as to why affected groups engage more in environmental and justice fights, as patriarchal privileges are questioned within environmental movements.
Men from privileged groups or industries in that society profit from the established structures, so they are less eager to change habits and give up their superior position – and why should they? Due to social structures, a lot of men tend to have more money to adapt to changes induced by global warming by moving or buying helpful technologies to ease their lives, whereas women and other marginalized groups are often more dependent on natural resources and possess less economic power. It is also obvious that radical climate protection calls many things into question from which men are more likely to benefit.
If we really want to stop global warming soon enough, we have to reduce emissions as much as possible – and do that as quickly as possible and as fairly as possible. To do so, we have to get out of coal, gas, and oil production, and this affects especially male-dominated areas of politics and industry, which benefit from the current status quo. So it is no wonder that women and girls are more enthusiastic about leading and joining the movement and some men find it more difficult to get enthusiastic about climate protection!
5. Women’s rights might decline as global warming gets more serious
If women’s rights are under threat, they are not the only ones who suffer – societies on the whole are negatively affected by it. As mentioned above, women are more dependent on natural resources, they are more often in the role of caretakers, and yet suffer the most from direct effects of climate change. As structures change and migration increases, women are left even more vulnerable. This worsens gender inequality around the globe but especially in the global South, as it holds back the developing extension of women’s rights and the rights of other minorities. “If you want to overcome climate change, you have to fight every form of injustice – this includes as well the capitalist and patriarchal system”, states Isadora Cardoso from the NGO genderCC.
Conclusion: Women as “agents of change”
But here is the good news: Women, as well as indigenous people and other marginalized minorities, could help a lot in dealing with and battling the impacts of climate change. In general, women often have a “strong body of knowledge and expertise that can be used in climate change mitigation, disaster reduction and adaptation strategies.” Their role as “stewards of natural and household resources” places them in a key position when it comes to contributing “to livelihood strategies adapted to changing environmental realities”, UN WomenWatch summarizes.
Women need to be equally represented in decision-making structures on national and international levels to contribute their valuable perspectives and expertise on climate change policies, both through representation in government delegations and through women’s rights organizations.
Feminism, understood as empowering women to the same level as men, does not only improve women’s lives, but also men’s lives – and, in general, society as well. It is the same when it comes to solutions for global warming: Not only women would benefit but all of us. “If there were more attention to the needs of women with regard to climate change in policy-making, more sustainable solutions could be found for men and women alike,” the European Parliament states.
It is good that gender is more and more “considered particularly relevant in climate protection policies, specifically in the design and implementation of adaptation and mitigation strategies as responses to climate change”, as the European Institute for Gender Inequality (EIGE) puts it, but there is still a lot of work to do. As an activist from Extinction Rebellion Gambia proclaimed: “We cannot succeed when half of us are held back!”
Ballew, Matthew et al. 2018: Gender Differences in Public Understanding of Climate Change. 07.10.2020.
Cwienk, Jeanette (Deutsche Welle) 2020: Klimawandel und Umweltzerstörung fördern Gewalt gegen Frauen. 07.10.2020.
European Institute for Gender Equality: Environment and climate change. 05.10.2020.
Europäisches Parlament 2017: Klimawandel und Gender. 05.10.2020.
Extinction Rebellion Gambia [xrgambia] (26.09.2020): “It was without hesitation that we stood out to show solidarity in this exceptional demonstration…” 05.10.2020.
genderCC (women for climate justice) 2007: Gender and Climate Change Network – Women for Climate Justice Position Paper. UNFCCC COP 13, Bali, Indonesia, Dec 2007. 05.10.2020.
Halser, Marlene (Vice Magazine) 2019: Klimaprotest: Warum engagieren sich vor allem junge Frauen? 07.10.2020.
Halton, Mary (BBC News) 2018: Climate change ‘impacts women more than men’. 05.10.2020.
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