It is hard to walk away from today’s headlines and news stories about climate change. As large weather events become more intense, sea levels rise, wildfires become more extreme, and island nations face unsure futures, all of the world’s populations in both developing and developed countries are being forced to contend with what next? Climate change has presented for everyday citizens of the world as well as the community of scholars and scientists, an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue, discuss existing solutions and enact and implement changes that will safeguard the earth for the next generations. The impact of climate change is not evenly distributed between men and women. Prevailing gender inequalities place more burdens on women and girls particularly in developing countries.
Women and girls in rural communities spend considerable time for everyday tasks such as collecting firewood and water for their families. More often than not, the water is unsafe and impacts the health of the entire family. Furthermore, without cleaner, affordable alternatives to firewood, they are at a greater risk of exposure to toxic smoke and chemicals when they cook using open fires. With increased exposure to environmental toxins which can be stored in body fat, over time the toxicity can harm the health of women and the children they bear. For some families these health risks are compounded by their lack of access to affordable health care due to poverty and geographical isolation.
For a number of economic and cultural reasons, secondary school enrollment is significantly lower for girls than the rates for boys. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agenda of 2015 helped most countries achieve 90 percent enrollment in elementary school for boys and girls alike. Regular attendance in secondary school still remains a challenge for girls when burdens of firewood and water collection, household chores, and lack of toilets in schools place unnecessary barriers to their schooling. Low levels of schooling and bleaker economic prospects for these girls raise the prospects of early marriage and early child bearing, making both the young mother and her baby vulnerable to poor health outcomes.
As population pressures bring humans closer and closer to forests and unpopulated lands, the result is mass clearing of trees for crop cultivation. Forests play an important role in absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide and are essential for combatting climate change. Forests also provide resources that sustain communities that live close by. Yet communities are forced to choose between preserving forests and crop production. When communities are impoverished, men migrate to urban areas for higher wages while women are left with the task of crop cultivation on the family farms. They have to make choices between growing cash crops for sale versus growing crops, vegetables and fruits that provide nutritional sustenance for their families. These are difficult choices to make. Women also look after cattle and poultry, engage in bee keeping, and collect tubers, roots and fodder from surrounding forests. They have a profound stake in the preservation of forests, pasture land, the village commons and non-privatized land. As consumers of these resources, they are also aware that they are contributing to its long-term depletion.
Food insecurity, water insecurity and dwindling resources threaten the way of life of rural and indigenous communities. Climate disruptions have already instigated population migration, and deepened poverty. To truly turn this around, we have to work on solutions with added urgency. We can begin by identifying women leaders in their own communities. We can encourage alliances that allow their voices to be heard in their communities, local governments, national governments and on the international stage.
This brings us to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which offer the best way forward. The SDGs are well conceived and offer a very bold sustainable pathway to the challenges of our time. It offers a clear blueprint to combat climate change, alleviate poverty, and achieve gender equality. The seventeen SDGs include quality education, poverty alleviation, clean energy, reduced inequalities, good health and well-being, zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, decent work and economic growth and most importantly, climate action. Achieving gender equality, goal 5, will have a cascading impact on all the other SDGs. Emphasizing the following targets will go a long way in combatting climate change:
- End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.
- Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life.
- Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.
- Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women.
- Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.
United Nations (2015). The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/2015_MDG_Report/pdf/MDG%202015%20rev%20(July%201).pdf.
United Nations (2015). UN Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300.
Veena Khandke is the Director of Grants and Partnerships at Dining For Women. She is also an adjunct faculty in the Department of Asian Studies at Furman University in Greenville South Carolina.