Rhoda Pumbulani and Subbi for Women of Concern.Rhoda Pumbulani, Subbi and Ngikario for Women of Concern.Rhoda Pumbulani, Subbi and Ngikario for Women of Concern.

Women leading the fight against climate change

Women leading the fight against climate change

The world has been conscious of climate change for decades, but the particulars of its disproportionate effect on women are only just entering public consciousness.  

The disproportionate effects of climate change on women

That is the greatest injustice of climate change, that those who bear the least responsibility for climate change are the ones who will suffer the most.

Mary Robinson - Former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner

So says Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner. The world has been conscious of climate change for decades, but the particulars of its disproportionate effect on women are only just entering public consciousness.  

The number of extreme weather-related disasters has doubled in the last two decades, according to the UNFCCC. Wildfires, hurricanes, cyclones and drought disproportionately affect vulnerable countries in the Global South - the consequences of which can be overwhelming. The impact on agriculture, in particular, is stark - the yields of major crops can be massively reduced, contributing to food price hikes and income losses. These changes threaten food security across the world.  

Significantly, it is women that often hold the roles that are most adversely affected. Around one third of employed women worldwide work in agricultural roles. But it’s not just their economic security that is endangered by extreme weather. A community’s ability to build resilience is heavily reliant on its women - who are tasked with caregiving roles alongside occupational pressures. If food is scarce, women typically eat last.  

The Global South frontline

Sadi Oumale with her daughter Laïla and her two sons in Niger, preparing her field for the beginning of the rainy season. Photo: Ollivier Girard
Sadi Oumale with her daughter Laïla and her two sons in Niger, preparing her field for the beginning of the rainy season. Photo: Ollivier Girard

The inherent gender bias in the economic system means that women in agriculture are often denied access to financial support like credit or loans. For smallholding farmers in developing countries, this support is critical in the face of climate disaster. Men are more likely to be able to borrow the money needed to structure a farm around environmental security: investing in drought-resistant seeds, advanced tools, and high-quality fertiliser that is more resistant to climate change. Women are not only uniquely impacted by the aftermath of climate change - discrimination means that mitigating its effects is particularly difficult.  

Concern Malawi’s Chris Njima explains the domino effect a few seasons of bad rains has on a family in Malawi: “It means less food on the table for longer periods, with families either skipping meals or eating smaller portions.” As many as one million children under five in Malawi are stunted, and over 60% of the country’s children are anaemic due to poor diets. This year, climate disaster has caused more internal displacement than war - a frightening development in the fight against poverty. 

The Global South is not on the front page but it’s on the frontline.

Vanessa Nakate - Climate activist from Uganda

And women in the Global South are on the frontline. Rural communities - which Concern regularly works alongside - are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate disaster. But they are also the most likely to drive for a sustainable solution. A report by the ECBI notes that the gender roles and responsibilities ascribed to women mean they are uniquely positioned to aid with decision-making regarding climate change. Often responsible for both the education of communities, and practical land-management like monitoring seed growth, women are already advocating for transformation in their communities.

Concern and resilient farming methods

Agnes Jack is being supported by Concern to practice conservation agriculture. Since participating in the graduation programme her crop yields and income has greatly improved. Photo: Kieran McConville
Agnes Jack is being supported by Concern to practice conservation agriculture. Since participating in the graduation programme her crop yields and income has greatly improved. Photo: Kieran McConville

Concern’s Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) is a set of farming methods designed to increase the resilience and productivity of land affected by climate change, run in partnership with local leaders. It’s based on techniques already used by agricultural workers, utilising natural resources and promoting a range of farming practices.  In some of the countries most affected by climate change, such as Afghanistan and Malawi, techniques like improved irrigation and reforestation, have allowed rural communities to diversify their crops, and mitigate the effects of climate change. It won’t prevent extreme weather events, but it is a way of ensuring women’s lives are not disproportionately affected.  

Concern works with rural communities in the Global South to implement the programme, allowing women the space to develop a sustainable livelihood. Agnes Jack, a farmer in Malawi, has spoken about the impact CSA has had on her life. 

There’s a difference in the way women lived then and now. We used to depend on men to do everything. But now women are independent. We are able to support our own needs…and now we are even able to buy trousers for the husband.

Agnes Jack

Predicting policy change

While the effects of climate change are undoubtedly overwhelming, solutions are being created, and successes are being seen among the most vulnerable groups. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has specifically called out the need for investment in plans that collaborate with local leaders and marginalised groups. Multiple different actors across society, but particularly the most marginalised groups, need to be involved in shaping policy to help countries develop comprehensive action that builds on women’s unique knowledge and perspectives. In November, COP26 will take place in Glasgow. Climate injustice will be discussed; expect it to grab headlines as world leaders commit to policy change.  

Women are critical environmental decision makers;  however, less than 25% of the influential COP26 positions are held by women. For She Changes Climate a pressure group based in the UK, this isn’t enough. They are fighting for a 50:50 split across the leadership team, citing the unique place of women as problem-solvers against the existential threat to our planet.  

Mary Mandala and Eneles Mpela maintain the watershed in Phalombe, Malawi. Here they're cleaning the swale, which diverts water runoff down to the ground water supply instead of flooding the farms below. Photo: Chris Gagnon
Mary Mandala and Eneles Mpela maintain the watershed in Phalombe, Malawi. Here they're cleaning the swale, which diverts water runoff down to the ground water supply instead of flooding the farms below. Photo: Chris Gagnon

Solutions, and the women driving them

In the meantime, there are key individuals among those attending the summit that will be significant to policy change.  Patricia Espinosa, the senior UN delegate, will be at the conference. Patricia previously chaired the successful 2010 Cancun summit, and is known for her ambitious climate action plans. The work of Alicia Herbert, Gender Envoy, will also be significant. She has worked in development throughout her career, with a particular focus on vulnerable states in the Global South.  

It’s important to remember Mary Robinson’s statement that “climate change is not gender-neutral – it affects women far more. So this is not about climate change, it is about climate justice.” With COP26 approaching, and the innovation of schemes like Concern’s Climate Smart Agriculture, the injustice of environmental disasters - which currently impacts women more than any other group - may soon be a thing of the past. Pressure on governments, and the insight of local women leaders, will be key to a climate-conscious future.  

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