By Karen Taylor Director Centre for Health Solutions
On Tuesday, 8th March we will celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) recognising the historical, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women the world over. The theme for this year’s IWD is ‘#BreakTheBias’ aimed at raising awareness of the need to tackle bias and address inequalities. When I thought of what this means for me personally, I was reminded of the COP26 meeting in November 2021, where women took to the global stage to show that climate change isn’t gender neutral but amplifies existing gender inequalities. Moreover, that because women bear the brunt of the climate crisis they also have an important role to play in the fight against climate change. This week’s blog is aimed at raising the profile of IWD and at the same time highlighting the unequal impact of climate change on women and girls and demonstrating the tremendous contribution that women can and should be empowered to make.
COP26 and the inter-relationship between gender inequality and the climate crisis
For me personally, one of the enduring memories of COP26 was the arrival on the centre stage of the giant 3.5-metre-tall puppet, Little Amal, representing a young Syrian refugee. Amal had travelled 8,000 miles across Europe in time for ‘Gender Day’ at COP26 and joined the Samoan activist Brianna Fruean on stage. Brianna gave little Amal a flower representing hope and light and Amal gave Brianna some seeds to inspire hope and with the exhortation that seeds need to be nurtured to bear fruit and flowers, just like climate change requires careful attention and targeted interventions today, to realise a better tomorrow.1
Alok Sharma, the COP26 President speaking at a Gender Day event, noted that gender and climate are profoundly intertwined, and that climate change affects women disproportionately with 80 per cent of those displaced by climate related disasters and changes around the world being women and girls. He noted that women in developing countries interact with natural resources and ecosystems daily, collecting water for cooking and cleaning, using the land for livestock, and foraging for food, yet they are systematically marginalised in decision making. Moreover, when environmental disasters strike, the most vulnerable sectors of society, mainly women, whose health is often more fragile due to pregnancy or motherhood, are affected most. Yet such women are less likely to own land, or have equal access to water, or have a say in the planning and management of natural resources.2
Throughout the UK’s COP26 Presidency, the UK urged countries around the world to put gender equality at the heart of climate actions and in line with the ‘Gender Action Plan COP25’ which was agreed in 2019. At COP26, on Gender Day, the UK announced £165 million to tackle climate change while addressing the inequalities that make women and girls more vulnerable to climate change and empower them to take climate action. In addition, the UK launched a toolkit on gender-smart climate finance, in collaboration with the UK’s Development Finance Institution, the CDC. The toolkit aims to improve organisations understanding on the opportunities of gender-sensitive climate investment by providing guidance to the finance community on how to deliver better climate outcomes while promoting gender equality and women’s economic opportunities.3
Climate change is arguably the greatest global challenge of the twenty-first century
In our recent report Understanding the complexities and drivers of inequalities affecting public health, we noted that climate change is seen as the greatest public health threat of our time; and tackling it as the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century. We also referenced the critical findings of Sir Michael Marmot’s 2020 review Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review Ten Years On, which expressed concerns around climate change and emphasised the growing body of evidence on climate change’s contribution to the global burden of disease and the need for action. It acknowledged that the risks from failing to improve inequalities remains high and that there is a need to harmonise the agendas on climate change, the social determinants of health and health equity.4
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that as women represent the majority of the world's poor and are proportionally more dependent on natural resources under threat, they are more disproportionately affected and consequently in the greatest need of adaptation strategies in the face of climate variability and change. Women's greater vulnerability stems from several social, economic, and cultural factors. For example, 70 per cent of the 1.3 billion people living in conditions of poverty are women. In urban areas, 40 per cent of the poorest households are headed by women. Women predominate in the world's food production (50-80 per cent), but they own less than 10 per cent of the land.5
In many societies, socio-cultural norms and childcare responsibilities prevent women from migrating or seeking refuge in other places or working when disasters hit. Women, in many developing countries suffer gender inequalities with respect to human rights, political and economic status, land ownership, housing conditions, exposure to violence, education and health. Climate change is therefore an added stressor that can aggravate women's vulnerability. Yet, despite women being victims of climate change, women are also active and effective agents and promoters of adaptation and mitigation. For a long time, women have historically developed knowledge and skills related to water harvesting and storage, food preservation and rationing, and natural resource management.6 This knowledge and experience that has passed from one generation to another can contribute effectively to enhancing local adaptive capacity and sustaining a community's livelihood. Women are also instrumental in being able to galvanise whole communities due to the ripple effect they can have on their families and friends.7
Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow
As we saw at COP26, there are many examples and evidence of women and girls being effective and powerful leaders and change-makers for climate adaptation and mitigation. They are involved in sustainability initiatives around the world, and their participation and leadership often result in more effective climate action. Consequently, it is essential to continue to examine the opportunities, as well as the constraints, and to empower women and girls to have a voice and be equal players in decision-making related to climate change and sustainability. It is also important to strive for sustainable development and greater gender equality. For me, the 2022 IWD is an opportunity to ‘#BreakTheBias’ and acknowledge that ‘Gender equality today is key to a sustainable tomorrow’.