The intersections of climate change and gender

You’re the voice, try and understand it. Make a sound and make it clear.

John Farnham could never have imagined that almost 30 years since its release, his 1986 hit would become an anthem for climate action.

But on November 25, five days before the start of the UN Climate Conference (COP21) in Paris, a reimagined You’re the Voice launched on Thunderclap.

Featuring respected musicians and performers including Wendy Matthews and Ursula Yovich, the 1 Million Women campaign began as a celebration of women and grew into an ‘anthem of hope’  targeting the decision-makers at COP21.

Friends Natalie Isaacs and Tara Hunt co-founded 1 Million Women in 2009, after ‘chatting over a cup of tea’ about the way they lived.

Wanting to make changes that would help the planet, Isaacs and Hunt decided to launch a movement that would empower women and girls to live a low-carbon life.

Now six years on and 234, 756 supporters later, the not-for-profit is hoping their anthem will reach 30 million people.

‘The idea has really come into its own in giving women a voice on climate action, especially now that research is telling us that climate change affects women and men differently,’ says 1 Million Women spokeswoman Bronte Hogarth.

‘It’s not new research but in the past year particularly, it has highlighted that you can’t have climate justice without gender justice.’

Despite the research – and there is a lot of it – some people remain skeptical about how gender inequality intersects with climate change and the implications for girls and women around the world.

The facts, however, are plain and simple.

In developing countries, for example, factors such as poverty, limited education, lack of power, and inequitable distribution of roles all put women at disproportionate risk to the impacts of climate change – from natural disasters to changing soil and water conditions.

Women in rural and remote communities are particularly vulnerable, as they are often responsible for sourcing water, food and firewood. In sub-Saharan Africa for example, 73 per cent of women in Benin collect water compared to only 19 per cent of men.

With deforestation, warmer climates and extreme weather events such as flooding or drought leading to unpredictable and scarce resources, girls and women are often forced to walk long distances.

It is a physically demanding activity that can lead to injury and poor health, and, according to a UN Women report, can take from 2 to 20 hours per week.

‘As a result, women have less time to fulfill their domestic responsibilities, earn money, engage in politics or other public activities, learn to read or acquire other skills, or simply rest,’ the report states.

‘Girls are sometimes kept home from school to help gather fuel, perpetuating the cycle of disempowerment.’

Lower education and literacy levels can also limit a woman’s ability to access critical information that would allow her to prepare for disasters and adapt to longer-term climate change, according to a 2014 Red Cross report on gender and climate change.

And while women have extensive traditional and environmental knowledge, a lower social status means they often have limited influence over agricultural planning and climate change adaptation strategies within their communities.

There is hope, however. Organisations such as CARE International are working to break the cycle of disadvantage in communities across the world through the implementation of ‘gender-transformative’ activities.

These projects not only empower women but prove they are central in strengthening a community’s ability to adapt and survive.

Momotaj Begum lives on the bank of the Dharola River in Bangladesh. It’s a location prone to erosion, flooding and unpredictable weather – the farming community has been continually hit with periods of long drought and at the other extreme, unseasonal cold low temperatures.

With their rice and vegetable crops damaged each year from erratic weather, Momotaj and her family lived in poverty, struggling to make a living from surviving crops.

In an interview published on Care Climate Change, Momotaj says the family often starved during the day so they would have enough food for a meal together at night.

‘My husband thought about moving [migrating] to other places for work to support our family, but then I decided to fight back and started to desperately look for opportunities to learn how to overcome the problems we were facing from climatic impacts,’ she says in the interview.

In 2014, Momotaj had the opportunity to ‘fight back’ through the Where the Rain Falls project. The CARE initiative is aimed at equipping vulnerable communities with knowledge about changing weather patterns and developing community-based adaptation strategies.

‘Luckily, CARE was working in our community to improve the resilience of rain-fed smallholder farmers to address climatic vulnerabilities. So I joined as a Farmer Field School [FFS] member with my husband and soon, with the help of CARE, I began working as a ‘Change Agent’ in our community and my life started to change,’ Momotaj says.

After facilitating a group of 464 smallholder women and men farmers to identify adaptive crops and farming systems that would work in the area, Momotaj put the research findings into action on her own farm and watched her crops – and income – increase significantly.

Her daughters were able to return to school and the family could afford to repair their monsoon-damaged home. As well as lifting her family out of poverty, she shared her experiences with other farmers and supported them in implementing the new climate-adaptive strategies on their own farms.

Right now, as the world waits for a universal agreement to keep global warming below 2°C, women like Momotaj and supporters of the 1 Million Women movement are the real agents of change.

In making conscious daily choices and through sharing their knowledge and skills, it is women across the globe who have the power to create practical, lasting solutions for their children and future generations.

Image: Kamal J

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MA PhotoMelissa Archer is a freelance writer and journalist living in Brisbane. She has written for publications including Brisbane News, The Courier-Mail, The Sunday Mail, Peppermint Magazine, and Lip. 

Melissa blogs over at Art & Soul and you can read more of her work here

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