The impacts of climate change are being felt more by women than men and as women already suffer more as a consequence of disasters this is likely to continue as climate change contributes to further disasters.
Climate change and what are often misleadingly referred to as ‘natural’ disasters are exacerbators of vulnerability. In many parts of the world the vulnerability of women is increased by lower socioeconomic standing, cultural status, and standard gender roles.
With the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India surviving men outnumbered women by almost 3:1. In the 1991 cyclone that killed around 140,000 people in Bangladesh the vast majority of the victims were women. Up to 5 times as many women between the ages of 20 and 44 died as men. Some of those deaths were based on women waiting at home for their husbands to return to make evacuation decisions as usually women were not allowed to go outside without informing their male relatives.
This also contributed to the lack of information on the oncoming storm as information could pass much more freely between men in public spaces than it could for women at home. Additionally, most women could not swim; an action further impeded by the conservative traditional Sari clothing which was twisted all over the female body. Consequently, many drowned in the floods.
This increased vulnerability for women is a global problem with women globally more likely to experience poverty and to be trapped in lower socioeconomic conditions. 80% of people displaced by climate change are women according to UN figures. In the US the poorer community of African American women were among the worst affected after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Their displacement after the Hurricane tore away their community networks which were a crucial part of ‘getting by’, particularly as more than half of poor families were headed by single parents reliant on such networks.
Incidences of violence against women, including sexual assault and rape, have also been known to increase in the wake of disasters.
Gender roles are found to increase the risk of women in countries where they have to walk long distances to collect water. The disappearance of 90% of Lake Chad has particularly exposed nomadic indigenous women. The lengthening of the dry seasons means that women have to work harder to feed and look after families.
Clearly there is a need, as the UN recognises, for gender sensitive responses to the impacts of climate change. However, so far less than 30% of the national and global climate negotiating bodies are women representatives.
At another level – that of the largely techno-centric green economy response – gender-sensitivity has been largely absent. For example, there has been little recognition of how the accompanying industrial strategy will likely focus job creation in construction, manufacturing, and energy production, and in the high-skilled, high paid fields of engineering and financial services. As Sherilyn MacGregor, from the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, notes these are clearly male-dominated fields. Such an economy therefore might not challenge the male dominated order that propelled us into the carbon heavy economy in the first place.
Other jobs outside the elite male-centric circle can be filled by cheap labour such as in recycling, which have been increasing by over 10% per year in Europe. These are often demeaning, dangerous, and dirty jobs taken up by migrant women workers. For example textile recycling requires sorting through dirty clothing and being exposed to poor air quality with long standing shifts without breaks. The jobs are done by migrant women workers from Eastern Europe on minimum wages.
The same invisibility of gender is apparent in these economic visions that continue to overlook reproductive labour – the unpaid and paid care-giving and domestic roles such as child-care, cleaning, and cooking – on which the green economy, like any other, is dependent.
That these roles will continue to be heavily gendered and poorly supported likely contributes to low representation in technology, energy construction, and engineering, and with the corresponding male-centred techno-centric responses to climate change. A failure to recognize these challenges is partially both a cause and consequence of the absence of gender-sensitivity in the climate change agenda. As Sherilyn McGregor said of the last International Women’s Day “Why ‘green economy’ champions have not called for eco-friendly laundry services and childcare centres or affordable, locally-sourced meals-on-wheels is a question to ponder”.