One of the most persistent inequalities in our societies consists of the (socially constructed) inequality between women and men. And this is despite the progress that has been made in recent years in achieving Millennium Development Goal 3 on gender equality, mainly by improving the access of girls to education. Women are less involved in decision making, they hold less often a top position in the labour markets, and they are less rewarded for the same work. In many countries and communities, oppression, poor living and health conditions, as well as violence against women, form a major concern. Not without good reason, it is still emphasized that the majority of people living in poverty are women and children.
Social and cultural norms have contributed to allocate different roles and responsibilities to men and women. Whereas traditionally in both western as in developing countries the running of a household, the daily care for children, the sick and elderly are female tasks, men usually follow a job outside the house. We also see that especially in many developing countries, women also take care of agricultural production and fulfill income-generating activities in the informal sector.
Over recent decades it has become clear that women play important roles in the use and management of natural resources. Usually they are the ones responsible for the provision of water and biomass energy for the household.
It sounds logical that they are also affected most severely by changes in the availability and quality of natural resources. If there is no clean drinking water or fuel available close to your home, you have to trek longer distances – often with heavy loads over rough terrain. If there is less food available, and you are used to being the last to eat, there will remain less for yourself. Frequently, the poor health of women is thereby additionally put under pressure.
This interface between environment (ecosphere) and human society (social environment) – where gender relations take place – is more evident if climate change occurs. After all, the agricultural production is under pressure, clean water and (biomass) energy are scarce, heat stress and diseases are increasing, and weather-related disasters become more frequent. The burdens and stress on women are heavier, and their opportunities to receive training or education become fewer. There is also an increase in violence.
A much-discussed study by the London School of Economics and others (Neumayer/Plümper 2007) shows that within 141 natural disasters in the period between 1981 to 2002, the death probability for women was significantly higher than that for men. The stronger the disaster, the greater the difference. And the greater the gender disparity, the greater the gender-differentiated impact. The authors conclude that socially constructed gender-specific vulnerabilities are the major causes.
Also in such circumstances, the woman is not simply a victim. In almost all situations where I was involved or that I have studied, I saw women come together and organise themselves. It is clearly visible that they are activists and leaders in combating climate change, in disaster management and reconstruction. They are also active in re-shaping their society. There are numerous examples where women become active in climate protection and in adaption to changing climate conditions.
Another relevant consideration is the extent to which women and men differently contribute to climate change. Several recent European studies suggest that male behaviour particularly contributes to global warming. The study by Gerd Johnsson-Latham (2007) from Sweden shows that women follow a more sustainable lifestyle and produce a smaller environmental footprint. Here too, socially constructed roles form an important factor.
The social dimensions of climate change require urgent alertness. It is important that experts and politicians pay extra attention precisely to these most vulnerable groups and find ways to compensate their losses and to guarantee security. This will not be possible without listening to women alongside the men, to children alongside adults, to poor and refugees alongside the wealthy, and to integrate them into planning and implementing policies. The participation and strengthening of existing NGOs is a major issue: Just think of women’s groups, youth organisations and schools, refugee organisations, and the social sector within the future climate regime. This, too, is an issue of climate justice.
The author works as policy adviser and is lecturer on Sustainable Development at the Radboud University Nijmegen (Netherlands). Her research focuses on environmental and gender issues. Recently she published her book “Gender and Climate Change: An introduction” (Earthscan 2010). Contact: irene.dankelman (at) heltnet.nl.
This article has been published in the Jesuit magazine Streven (06/2011) and shortened for Ecojesuit. Translation from Dutch: TP.