Climate change, says the UN, is the defining threat of the 21st century.
To tackle this threat effectively and build peaceful, sustainable societies, a new report by the intergovernmental organisation suggests that it is essential to look at the link between gender inequality and the crisis.
Inger Andersen, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director, explains in a statement that the effects of the climate crisis go beyond just environmental concerns. "Unequal access to land tenure, financial resources, and decision-making power can create economic stress for entire households in times of crisis, leaving women disproportionately exposed to climate-related security risk,”
Effective solutions must address related social issues to “ensure no one is left behind”.
International women’s rights charity, ActionAid works with women and girls living in poverty who are particularly affected by the consequences of global warming. They are less likely to be in positions of power or decision making roles, but are more often in charge of making sure their families have fuel, water and food. If displaced by climate change-related natural disasters, the risk of gender-based violence increases, leaving women and girls vulnerable to early marriage, adolescent pregnancy and trafficking.
The UN suggests that upheaval caused by such disasters could present a chance to put women in leadership roles. In case studies from Sudan and Nepal, the effects of climate change led to men having to leave their villages to find work. This left women at home to deal with increasing scarcity of resources in rapidly degrading environments.
Changes in social demographics like this provide an opportunity to “strengthen women’s leadership for conflict prevention and resolution, and to empower them to increase community resilience” states the report.
Research shows that, when women are involved in decision making both locally and nationally, they are key to introducing environmentally conscious solutions. Cultural gender roles often mean women manage households with most of the one billion women living rurally worldwide relying on agriculture and natural resources for their livelihoods.
This gives women a wealth of knowledge and expertise to create strategies for a more sustainable future.
An opportunity for women in a post COVID-19 world
Another pilot project by the UNEP, UN Women and UNDP in Sudan, also found that natural resource management and climate mitigating interventions provided a strong entry point for women’s empowerment where they were traditionally excluded from decision making. This was because it was already an area where their knowledge was recognised as being valuable.
As countries look for recovery strategies after the devastating social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN report calls for more investment in projects like this to ensure gender equality and empowerment in places where peace and security are fragile.
The authors hope that this will emphasise the link between gender inequality and climate change while also reinforcing the essential role of women in peacebuilding.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director at UN Women, says that “building back better” post-pandemic, with gender in mind, ensures that inequalities are addressed and violence against women comes to an end.
“Women are a powerful force to rebuild societies more securely, from providing food and shelter, to generating vital income and leading sustainable change.”