For International Women’s Day, ICN decided to dedicate an article to the issue of gender equality regarding climate change and its adverse events. This is not the first time that ICN has dealt with issues of inequality. For example, we have repeatedly addressed the issue of the North-South divide and the need to integrate human rights and their language into negotiating texts to ensure climate and social justice as well. Here, however, we specifically address the structural and systemic inequalities that exist within our society. We will address gender inequality and the role of women in climate change and climate justice.
It is well established that adverse climate change events interact differentially with different social groups. Indeed, society is made up of different groups that differ in ethnicity, skin colour, gender, and sexual orientation, but also in wealth and poverty. Where these factors are already in themselves a source of discrimination and inequality, they are exacerbated and accentuated by climate change in a perverse vicious circle.
And indeed, society has instituted and perpetrated norms and values over time that have promoted the superiority of some of these traits over others. This in turn has placed those with traits that differ from that paradigm at a disadvantage, generating what we can summarise as inequalities.
In this context, decades of studies confirm that these inequalities make disadvantaged social groups more vulnerable to climate change in three ways:
- they increase the risk of exposure to climate change.
- they make such groups more susceptible to the damage caused by climate change.
- they reduce the ability of such groups to cope with, manage and recover from the adverse effects of climate change.
This also applies to the issue of gender. The term ‘gender’ encompasses a broader spectrum of identities, but on this occasion, we will focus generically on the male-female distinction and the roles pre-assigned to them by society. Now, precisely because of these pre-assigned roles and their intersection with racism, capitalism, colonialism and ableism, women are disproportionately affected by climate change and are therefore more vulnerable to it.
As numerous reports have shown, for example, women constitute on average 43% of the agricultural labour force in countries of the Global South and about 50% in Sub-Saharan Africa, despite owning or managing only 15% of the cultivated land on the planet. As is well known, the agricultural sector is particularly affected by the severe droughts of recent years, and this is exposing women and their communities to serious malnutrition and disease.
More generally, research shows that women still face problems with access to resources, justice, mobility and the ability to make their voices heard in decision-making processes that also affect them. An example is given in the table below, which shows gender inequalities in the European and COP contexts, where women occupy fewer key positions in climate policies despite being among those most affected by climate change.
Table 1. European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE).
While women are made more vulnerable to climate change by the role’s society subjects them to, it must also be said that the gender responsibilities traditionally attributed to them have also been an opportunity for women themselves to develop innovative solutions to the challenges of climate change. This includes, for example, the development of methods for caring for the soil and natural resources, the development and maintenance of traditional agricultural knowledge, and the management, care and education of families and communities in such know-how and values.
It is with this in mind that we decided to dedicate this article to women who have contributed and still contribute to the fight against climate change and climate justice. In particular, we have chosen to highlight the examples of:
- Ursula Rakova from the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea: frustrated by her government’s inaction on climate change policies that are making her land inhospitable to life, she founded Tulele Peisa in 2006, which means ‘sailing the waves alone’. Leading this initiative, Rakova guided her community in the process of relocating from the islands to a safer place in Bougainville.
“The people of the Carterets are victims of a crisis they have not caused, as they emit the least or nil emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”
– Ursula Rakova, Executive Director, Tulele Peisa
- Colette Pichon Battle, a Louisiana native, fights for human rights and climate justice for local communities. Louisiana is an area affected by frequent hurricanes, flooding and rising sea levels. She is the founder of the Gulf Coast Centre for Law and Policy, which aims to raise awareness of the plight of people affected by climate change and promote a process of recovery from climate catastrophes. (video of her impassioned Ted Talk here).
- Ama Francis, who at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos presented the NGO International Refugee Assistance Project, which works with other organisations to promote strategies for the recognition and protection of climate migrants in Latin America, Central America and the Caribbean. As she says, the project is also the result of an awareness gained from her personal experience. Ama is a native of Dominica and together with her family experienced first-hand the destructive effects of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
These women experienced first-hand the devastating effects of climate change and witnessed how it disproportionately affects the most disadvantaged social groups, including women. At the same time, they have also had the strength to react to the tragedy and to propose new solutions to climate change that do not perpetuate the same inequalities.
These women have made their personal experience and feminism their strength in the battle against climate change and for climate justice, knowing that the effects of their struggle produce and will produce benefits for all affected social groups and for generations to come. These women have inspired us, and we hope they will also inspire all of you who follow the work of ICN.
Article by Camilla Pollera and Erika Moranduzzo, Italian Climate Network volunteers and co-reporters of the Climate and Rights section