by Marion Beaulieu (she/her)
The impact of climate change is not gender-neutral. Women are disproportionately vulnerable to the risks stemming from the current climate crisis due to the nature of the social, economic and cultural environment they live in. Pre-existing inequalities are further intensified by climate change, which threatens to relegate women to the role of voiceless victims.
In poor communities which rely on natural resources and rural activity in order to subsist, women often occupy a central role in providing water, energy, and food supplies. The increasing scarcity of resources combined with the added strains resulting from environment degradation directly weigh on these tasks at the responsibility of women.
Cultural and social norms which attribute childcare responsibilities and other household activities to women also participate in magnifying the impact of climate change. In cases of natural disasters, which occur at a greater frequency and greater intensity, these obligations further complicate migration and settlement. Women’s livelihoods are increasingly precarious as they must accommodate to hostile circumstances while taking on the various duties conferred to them.
In terms of security, climate change participates in exacerbating domestic violence, human tafficking, and sexual assault. These added dangers maintain women under constant threat and jeopardise the progress made in recent years in terms of women's rights.
In addition to these social, economic and cultural factors which heighten the negative consequences of climate change for women, they remain marginalised from decision-making and positions of power. Not only are women increasingly vulnerable to our changing environment, they are not given sufficient means to lead the fight. Yet, it appears evident that the best responses can only be designed by those who experience directly and persistently the issues which we should strive to resolve.
Such an example of political exclusion can be noted in western Nepal, where climate change threatens women’s security. Higher temperatures, melting glaciers and increasing weather variability are negatively impacting the current socio-economic situation in the region. These changes further constrain access to natural resources and increase out-migration amongst men, which contribute to an increase in women’s responsibilities and precarity in employment. Domestic violence escalates alongside food insecurity, further adding to the vulnerability of women. Yet, women are marginalised from political decision-making, and lack any channels of expression or protest.
As a response to the grave increasing vulnerability of women in face of the climate crisis and the resulting need for empowerement, a feminist approach to political ecology emerged. According to this perspective, gender is the main prism through which we must understand decision-making and the influence of socio-political forces on environmental issues. Particular attention is given to access and control of resources, especially in developing countries. The distinct impact of climate change on different genders is not considered to be biologically-rooted, but rather arises from social constructs of gender.
Prominent scholars in this field include Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter and Esther Wangari, who further advocated for a social interpretation of gender roles. A focal point of their work revolves around the undeniable and yet too-often overlooked idea of intersectionality. Gender interacts and overlaps with a multitude of other factors, such as race, socio-economic status, culture and ethnicity, which must be considered in our approach to climate change and the role of women in leading our response. Depicting women as a homogenous group is an obstacle to both achieving greater understanding of the climate crisis’ unequal effects and to designing appropriate measures.
The necessity to consider gender in an intersectional framework supports the fundamental importance of case studies and their pivotal role in placing women at the core of decision-making. Greater attention should be given to specific geographical regions with distinctive cultural and social practices.
This call was echoed by Chizu Sato and Jozelin Maria Soto Alarcón, who focused their work on the cooperative Milpa Maguey Tierno de la Mujer in San Andrés Daboxtha in rural Mexico. The increasing desertification of the region incited men to migrate in order to secure their livelihood. Women were left behind and tasked with caring for the household and the community, while subsisting through precarious work. The cooperative emerged from this context, in the aim to promote productive roles for women and carry their voice in the decision-making process.
Using indigenous knowledge and initial funding provided by NGOs as well as the national government, the cooperative produces agave syrup. Members collectively negotiated the use of land and implemented an organic certification for their production. Supervision and discussion regarding the methods of production are held in a democratically elected internal committee, which provides women of the community with decisive influence in the decisions affecting their own livelihoods. By 2019, the community had rehabilitated 70 hectares of their land and succeeded in securing an organic certification. Through continuous sharing of knowledge and further flourishing of environmental-friendly agricultural practices, the cooperative preserved more than 25 various agave species.
Familial support was difficult to secure for the women participating in the cooperative, especially from their husbands. However, the undeniable financial benefits of the scheme supported the women’s active role in the community. The social benefits arising from the cooperative are also numerous. The creation of a common pool savings serves to satisfy collective needs as well as the necessary care for the women’s households. Members of the cooperative also discuss and address private issues, such as domestic violence and oppression occuring in their household.
Women’s vulnerability to climate change can and must be a stepping stone towards political and environmental empowerment. For years, women developed essential knowledge and skills, which, as shown by the Milpa Maguey Tierno de la Mujer cooperative, should be employed in combating the gender-specific impact of climate change. It is only by fully committing to an intersectional approach and effectively including women in the decision-making process that we can secure positive environmental change.