There’s a lot riding on the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), a two-week summit tackling pressing environmental concerns that began October 31 in Glasgow.
Greenhouse gas concentrations are at historic highs. Temperatures are warmer than ever. Sea levels are rising fast. Glaciers are disappearing. More and more people are experiencing extreme weather conditions across the globe.
At COP26, the world’s leaders are expected to talk about key solutions towards better climate change adaptation, mitigation, and financing.
The problem is, the voices of women are still largely missing from the conversation. In fact, women, who make up half of the world’s population, are only present in roughly 15% of 881 national environmental ministries around the world, and this underrepresentation carries over to international conferences like the COP26. Moreover, women also comprise 20% of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change authorship — up from just 5% in 1990.
All this is despite the fact that women are more likely to accept the scientific consensus on global warming and have a positive effect on conservation efforts wherever they are involved. And perhaps most crucially, women are disproportionately more vulnerable to the worrying effects of the climate crisis.
Though the climate crisis affects the lives of people across the globe, it’s not doing so equally. Women and girls — particularly in the global South — have the least say in the matter, but stand to lose the most. Here’s why.
Household Work Gets Harder as the Climate Crisis Worsens
The climate crisis makes household responsibilities like cleaning, cooking, gathering resources, and caring for kids — all tasks usually taken on by women — much harder, especially in rural communities.
For example, in Central Africa, where Lake Chad has shrunk to a 10th of its size over the last 50 years, women are paying the price for climate change. Some 30 million people rely on the freshwater from this lake, and as its shoreline recedes, women in the communities must walk much farther in order to collect water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning.
The same is true for women in Senegal, where rainfall has declined by about 35% over the last 20 years. In these sub-Saharan countries, 4 in 10 people live 30 or more minutes away from a safe drinking water source, and hauling water from shrinking lakes and unpredictable wells can take up as much as 20 hours out of a woman’s week.
Along rivers in India and Bangladesh, rising sea levels are damaging water quality. And for the women living there, saltier water has caused health issues on top of the long, tiring treks to get to it.
What’s more, after climate disasters like 2017’s Hurricane Maria, women have a harder time recovering. That’s because the lack of water made daily chores like cooking and cleaning into monumental tasks, which took a mental and physical toll among women in Puerto Rico.
All this deepens existing inequalities. More time and energy spent cooking, cleaning, and managing a household means that women have significantly less time to find other sources of income for themselves — keeping them further away from economic independence.
Even without the climate crisis, women, who make up around 43% of the world’s agriculture workers, are denied property rights in roughly half of the world’s countries. Many also do not have access to financing, which brings me to the next point.
The Cycle of Poverty for Women Is Brutal
Around the world, women are more likely to experience poverty because of lower wages, less working opportunities, and a heavier burden of unpaid care work — a brutal situation that the climate crisis is only set to exacerbate.
Because women are less likely to achieve economic independence, they’re more likely to struggle when drought and climate disasters force the men of their household to find work elsewhere or even abandon their families.
Plus, when women and girls are displaced by disasters, they’re less able to continue their education or find new work opportunities. Girls are often forced to stop school in order to help out at home. Even among refugees, girls are only half as likely to be in school as boys.
Moreover, in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, African American women not only were the most affected by flooding, but they also had the hardest time getting their life back on track. Many emergency shelters, meanwhile, aren’t equipped to support women. The lack of sanitary products can complicate women’s lives in evacuation centers with health issues like urinary tract infections, toxic shock syndrome, and mental distress.
Women Have a Greater Risk of Dying in Natural Disasters
Recent research has revealed that women are 14 times more likely to die or be injured due to natural disasters.
In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami alone, which took the lives of 230,000 people across 14 countries, surviving men outnumbered women by almost 3:1.
Part of this imbalance is incidental. For example, the tsunami hit Batticaloa, Sri Lanka when women usually took their baths in the sea. But some of it is also definitely rooted in gender imbalance. An Oxfam report points out that many women died because they stayed behind to find children and other relatives. Moreover, girls and women are not encouraged to learn how to swim or climb trees — skills that helped more men survive as the water rose.
An extreme case would be Cyclone Gorky in 1991 in southeast Bangladesh, where 90% of casualties were women, who outnumbered male casualties by 14:1. As traditional caregivers, women were culturally and socially isolated at home and likely did not hear cyclone warnings. Many were also reluctant to leave their homes without their husbands, who were at work.
As climate change continues to raise sea levels and cause land instability, the greater the risks are of stronger and more devastating tsunamis. These, on top of cyclones and flash floods, heighten the risk of women and girls dying from the climate crisis.
Natural Disasters Cause a Spike in Gender-Based Violence
But for women who do survive natural disasters and make it to evacuation centers, danger is still very much present.
After Hurricane Katrina hit, for example, around 1 in 3 reports of sexual assault occurred in crowded evacuation shelters. Moreover, in the chaos of disaster recovery, police and other personnel may be too busy to respond to cries for help.
In Australia, the bushfire crisis has caused a hidden crisis of its own in domestic abuse spikes.
In other cases, droughts, flooding, and other climate disasters are fueling human trafficking, often forcing disenfranchised women and children to sexual exploitation and modern slavery. They’re also causing higher rates of child marriage and domestic violence for women and girls. In Malawi, for instance, climate change is set to force some 1.5 million more child brides into marriage.
A Seat at the Table, Today and Tomorrow
As much as climate change is propelled by human activity, its effects are also shaped by societal structures. This is why women’s representation in CoP 26 and other platforms spells the difference between life and death for women across the globe.
At CoP 26, world leaders are set to dedicate a full day to gender issues on November 9. And in a conference attended by mostly men, women and girls across the globe must wait with bated breath if anything will come out of it.