To effectively carry out climate change adaptation and mitigation it is important to understand the impact of climate change on men and women to be able to reduce vulnerabilities. This will involve an understanding of how the different social expectations, roles, status and economic power of men and women affect and are affected differently by climate change.
Many communities have developed differences in roles for both men and women, drawn along gender lines. This difference in roles within communities, access to information, economic and social factors have to be analyzed for successful implementation of adaptation and mitigation measures. Men and women carry out activities that impact on climate change differently, just as they are impacted on by climate change differently. The most noticeable consequences of an increasingly warming earth have been felt in the areas of agriculture, food security, health, biodiversity, water resources, energy availability, housing and even security, which greatly affect women as a result of societal delineation of roles, discrimination and other peculiar vulnerabilities of women.
It is common consensus that women, especially in Africa are responsible for the management of natural resources at the household and community level. They are thus repositories of knowledge with respect to management of natural resources, are the first and worst hit by negative impacts on these natural resources and are also better placed to translate their knowledge of resource management into effective mitigation and adaptation techniques.
But gender inequality and societal discrimination against women effectively hamper their abilities to adapt to a changing climate and even contribute to mitigation.
Agriculture and Food Security
As active players in agriculture, women are more affected by the impacts of climate change on agriculture like decreasing yields due to decreasing mean rainfall and drought. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 70 – 80% of household food production is done by women. They have been able to achieve this in spite of unequal access to land, information and input such as improved seeds and fertilizer.
Climate change results in traditional food sources becoming more unpredictable and scarce. This results in loss of income for women farmers as well as declining harvest that have implications on household and community food security. As a result consequent increases in food prices make life more difficult for the poor, who again are mainly women and girls. The impacts of food insecurity beyond economic implications are also skewed against women as they suffer more declines in health than men in such events. In spite of these realizations, women are often excluded from decision-making on access to and use of land and resources critical to their livelihoods. It is however critical that women rights are protected by removing discriminatory access to agricultural resources and allowing equitable participation in decision-making to improve the community food security situation in many African countries.
With rising temperatures there is the increasing risk of vector spread diseases like malaria. Many African women, especially pregnant ones die from malaria as pregnancy reduces immunity. Flooding from increasing sea levels will result in a spread in the breeding ground for malaria. There are already reports of increased malaria cases in Rwanda and Tanzanian highlands as a result of temperature rise. At the present many African communities still do not have access to potable drinking water. Where water is available, the cost is usually too high for most people, especially poor rural women to afford. Many communities in Africa collect rain water into a reservoir during the raining seasons. Collected water barely last to the beginning of the dry seasons as there is water pressure for drinking, cooking, washing and other domestic chores with most families not being able to spare such ‘precious’ water for agriculture. My grandmother used to even bail water from the muddy ground into the reservoir. The reservoir was our source of cooking, washing and drinking water. Until I caught her in the act, I actually drank water from the reservoir. This practice is common among many women in my village as there is no source of tap water or even boreholes since the water table is so far from the surface. Many African women have resorted to this kind of unsafe practices and climate change promises to worsen the situation.
In dry seasons many African women resort to fetching water from streams that are yet to dry and this is also used for drinking, even with worms and several visible organisms dancing in the water. With climate change resulting in declining rainwater, women are bound to work harder to access water sources distant from them with such tiring journeys having health and growth implications, especially for girls who are also deprived from school on such occasions. With water scarcity many women resort to unsafe water sources like streams in many rural African communities for drinking, risking diseases like cholera, typhoid and diarrhea with huge mortality implications, especially as many rural African communities do not have adequate health facilities.
The health implications of climate change for many African women also have vicarious faces. In the event of illness of a family member, women are expected to tend to the sick. Increase in diseases as a consequence of climate change thus increases the responsibility burdens for women as they tend to the sick. This reduces available time for other economic activities and thus results in further impoverishment of already poor women, thus furthering a complex cycle of implications.
Water and Energy
Household water and energy provision in many African communities are the preserve of women. A study indicated that women in a Zimbabwean family contributed 91% to the task of fetching water, spending an average of 9.3 hours with men spending 1 hour of the total household time on this chore. With climate change declining rainfall supplies, gathering and transporting water becomes more time-consuming as women have to walk longer distances in search of water. An estimate showed that ‘women in developing countries spend an average of 134 minutes a day collecting water for their households.
In African communities where female children even shun schools on days designated by the family as ‘farm work or market days’, the consequence of water scarcity resulting from climate change poses the further threat of female children dropping out of school to meet the daily water needs of their households. This situation denies women the opportunities of educational and thus economic empowerment, furthers poverty and reduces their resilience to the impacts of climate change. Besides the increased workload on women with respect to water gathering, for communities, like urban areas where drinkable sources of water are available, such resources become more expensive, reducing not only accessibility but also affordability by women. Many women thus resort to unsafe water sources, with the obvious attending health implications.
Energy requirements for most rural African households require the combustion of wood for cooking. Women are also responsible for the gathering of this fuel. Combustion of wood contributes to anthropogenic CO2, thus women, most of them, being unaware are major relative contributors to climate change and in the end still constitute the hardest hit victims. This realization mandates the involvement of women in climate change awareness and policy making considering their critical place in both mitigation and adaptation to climate change.
Many African women and girls spend longs hours every day collecting firewood, reducing the time for education and other economic activities that would normally emancipate them and their families from poverty traps. With the clamour for more effective energy use to reduce global contribution to CO2 emissions, it is important to develop strategies to aid women in using cleaner fuel sources as they aim to fulfill their responsibilities of domestic energy provision.
The impacts of climate change, which have been shown to be generally disproportionate on women, are however beyond those considered above. Climate change has implications on migration, with environmental degradation and weather related events like flooding and erosion of shorelines resulting in displacement and migration of people. In the event of such happenings women are greatly affected due to their vulnerabilities.
Natural disasters which can be consequences of climate change also pose different consequences for men and women. These consequences are exacerbated for women especially due to gender inequality. A basic consideration clearly indicates that mortality rates are higher for women than for men in the event of natural disasters. Since in many societies, especially in Africa, women do not enjoy the same social and economic rights as men, more women die in the events of such natural disasters. Besides, certain societal factors like women’s susceptibility to abuse from men in the forms of rape and violence makes many women on the run during disasters reject available shelter as this increases their risk to abuse. Many women who survive during disasters need medical attention but this becomes a challenge as many women due to poverty and other social and economic constraints like lack of savings and assets prior to disasters, are unable to afford basic healthcare post-disaster.