Why women are disproportionately affected by climate change, and what we can do about it

Happy people around a world

Women are disproportionately affected by climate change, but many countries just don’t have the rights and representation to be part of the solutions. I want to highlight why women are more vulnerable to climate change, how unequal rights make the situation worse, and how this deep-seated problem can be changed. 

Women across every society should have the right to contribute knowledge, wisdom, and expertise to addressing the climate crisis. This knowledge is needed more than ever as the clock ticks towards the time when emissions need to peak, and the effects of climate change accelerate.

Why women are more vulnerable to climate change

The traditional female role in society, combined with reproductive health requirements, means women and girls are more prone to be affected by climate change. 

Water is frequently where climate change really bites. Too little water brings drought, which can mean crops fail. Too much water brings floods, which can destroy crops.  In developing countries, women frequently earn a living in agriculture and account for the majority (45-80%) of food production, so their livelihoods are frequently impacted by climate change in the form of droughts and heat waves or floods. 

Coupled with the responsibility to grow and provide food in a changing climate, women also frequently have domestic duties to run the home and look after children. With challenges growing food and accessing clean water supplies for the family, the burden on women is often significantly increased.

Health and hygiene

Many female reproductive health issues are related to access to clean water too, which often becomes more challenging during droughts or flooding, meaning women’s health can be adversely affected. For example, management of menstrual cycles can be more difficult when clean water is hard to find, and access to clean water during childbirth is crucial.

The role of women when climate disaster strikes

When regions become increasingly affected by climate change, there can be increases in migration as people leave to look for new ways to make a living, for example, looking for better grazing or moving to urban areas to find other sources of income. In these scenarios, it is common for women to stay behind, look after children and the elderly, and continue to provide food and water.

As a result, those left behind have increased responsibilities, but often in more challenging conditions as climate change bites.

In addition, in some cultures, women have not been able to learn basic survival skills, including swimming, or climbing trees, which would equip them better for flooding. This makes them more vulnerable when climate disaster strikes.

Unequal rights make it harder to adapt

Women in many societies play an important role in the provision of water in their community, as well as the production of food. When access to water becomes harder, the burden on women to get clean water can increase.

This can be exacerbated by the fact that these responsibilities don’t necessarily come with authority because in many countries women have limited influence over decisions on how land and resources are used and managed.

They also often find it harder to access government support, for example, in rural Sudan farm-aid programmes, government credit, and other inputs which could help with adaptation often exclude women farmers. 

Women’s influence is smaller

So, women are frequently in a position of high dependency on natural resources to deliver basic needs to their families and communities, but with little control over how they are managed and protected. Why? Because the vast majority of countries do not provide equal rights to women. 

This impacts in many different ways, both at a local level, right through to the very top, witnessed by the fact that women are underrepresented at COP27. There was criticism of the British government last year regarding the lack of women in their COP26 representation, and the current UN Secretary-General, António Guterres said, “Women’s equality is essentially a question of power. We must urgently transform our male-dominated world and shift the balance of power, to solve the most challenging problems of our age.” 

I am hugely lucky to have been born in a country and a continent where women generally have excellent rights.

As a result, I work with incredibly able and impactful women who can be part of the solution to climate change, and to enjoy a seat at the decision-making table. For example, within our Giki Chief Greenie community of people within their organisations working to bring behaviour change on climate change, 2/3 are women.

Many other women don’t have this option, despite being adversely affected by climate change, and often have a wealth of knowledge that could help address the problem. Yet when women have a seat at the table, the outcomes for the climate are frequently better. That is why it is so important to highlight this issue and build the case globally to enable women across every society to have the right to contribute knowledge, wisdom, and expertise to addressing the climate crisis.

How this deep-seated problem can be changed

Education is a part of the solution, from basics such as literacy, which makes it easier for women to access information on climate resilience and adaptation. It also enables women to have a stronger voice in society and so bring a wealth of often untapped knowledge and experience to the table.

Giving women a louder voice and stronger influence in decision-making at local, regional, national, and international levels is, in my view, a crucial step to speeding up the resolution of the climate crisis we face.

If we continue down the path of the under-representation of women in business and politics, we risk missing opportunities for solving the climate crisis.

When time is running out to get on top of these challenges, what a tragedy it would be if we hamstring the chances of success because we overlook the experience and wisdom of women.

If you’d like to speak with us about any of the issues raised in this article, or speak to me about gender, equality, and the climate, get in touch.

Want to read more on this subject? Here are some excellent reports:

Women, gender equality and climate change

Women at the frontline of climate change

Women and the law