/ 13 August 2023

Include women in finding ways to tackle climate crisis

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File photo: A maize farmer in the Eastern Cape hangs her mielies out to dry.

Climate change is hugely unequal. We know it affects the poor and vulnerable the most and scientists say the African continent suffers the harshest effects of this disaster.

And as if gender-based violence, sexual harassment and wage gaps aren’t enough, women must also bear the brunt of this human-made disaster. 

I’m not pulling this out of thin air, I promise. There’s a body of research that shows how women are affected the most by climate change. The link is there and clear.

The Institute for Security Studies said in a report: “The double burden of climate change and gender inequality renders women more vulnerable because they are less likely to have access to financial and social assets. These include land tenure, social and legal services, political participation, paid livelihoods, governance and infrastructure.” 

The KwaZulu-Natal floods are a testament to these unequal effects. Researchers Fidelis Udo and Maheshvari Naidu explored this when studying the vulnerability and adaptation experiences of black women in the province. 

Among their key findings was that women and girls were further entrenched in poverty because floods wiped out their sources of livelihood. Many of these women have to provide food and other essentials for their families and the floods damaged this. 

They also found that this made them vulnerable to gendered power relations and abusive male figures. The halls set up to shelter people driven out of their homes put women in a vulnerable position because they had to share the space with men.

Women in business and the entrepreneurial world are harder hit than their male counterparts, some studies found.

Agriculture is one of those sectors. Although women work in agriculture, they own only about 13% of the land. It can be even lower in some African countries such as Nigeria, as researcher Kate Gannon found. 

Her three major findings show that women entrepreneurs are more exposed to climate risk, they face many barriers when it comes to adapting to climate change and they are on the front line of harsh climate impacts. 

Because they run households, the effect of climate change on the home will hit them hardest. 

Gannon wrote: “There is also some evidence to suggest that women and their business activities are more likely to be confined to more marginal and degraded agricultural land. This land is less resilient to climate shock. So climate shocks are likely to be more severe for women entrepreneurs than for their male peers.”

Women regularly face more barriers in entrepreneurship than men do. Kezia Fortuin wrote for the International Growth Centre that “40% or more of the agricultural workforce is represented by women, while in sub-Saharan Africa, women make up 60-80% of smallholder farmers”.

She noted that these jobs are informal. There are no worker contracts that protect women and so when climate shocks hit, these women suffer. When rainfall and temperatures are erratic, it affects their livelihoods and food sources. 

This is not a doom and gloom situation. There is an opportunity to include women in adaptation strategies. These strategies need the perspectives of women who are mostly affected by the climate crisis. 

Policymakers and people fighting climate change must include vulnerable women in their plans. For example, in the case of KwaZulu-Natal, women have been exposed to floods which could be crucial in developing useful mitigation and adaptation strategies. 

This is something that climate scientist Susan Chomba is vocal about. In a Guardian article she wrote: “The way climate is seen in the world, it’s seen very much from a masculine perspective. For example, while male climate scientists focus heavily on developing renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuels like oil and gas, they pay far less attention to the hundreds of millions of women worldwide who are burning wood for tasks like cooking. Incorporating the perspectives of women — particularly poor, rural women — would better ensure comprehensive solutions.” 

Local knowledge is critical for developing climate resilience. Much of that knowledge comes from women who have experience living with these problems.

In a UN Women article, African Union youth envoy Chido Mpemba said climate change affects people who depend on natural resources; people whose livelihood is highly dependent on the land such as women in agriculture. These women need to be front and centre of climate initiatives and sustainable development. 

It’s crucial for the viewpoints of women to be included in fighting climate change. Their perspectives have a vital role to play. Because they face the climate crisis head on, give their voices a space. Allow them to help solve the climate crisis.