/ 5 September 2022

Why climate action must include women’s voices

Community members cross a flooding bridge in KZN.

In June, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change released a report on the gender-differentiated impacts of climate change. Drawing on hundreds of peer-reviewed sources from around the world, the report painted a grim picture of how women are already facing significantly elevated risks of climate harm. The research also confirmed that climate change exacerbates many patriarchal dynamics in society, including systemic gender discrimination.

Take gender-based violence (GBV) for example. There are many documented cases of GBV being exacerbated in the wake of climate-induced disasters such as cyclones or the floods which killed hundreds of people in KwaZulu-Natal earlier this year. Such events have also been found to lead to an increase in child marriages (which is accepted as an act of GBV), as a means of securing funds or assets after a disaster, and many girls are also taken out of school to assist in households in these circumstances.

Around the world, and here in South Africa, women and girls are the household members most often expected to perform chores such as fetching water and firewood. As climate impacts steadily worsen, so too do the distances that they need to travel to find these resources. This increases their vulnerability to experiencing GBV. Women in rural parts of South Africa are also most likely to be responsible for maintaining gardens as a means to provide food for their families. Climate change impacts, such as floods and droughts, also negatively affect this essential form of subsistence farming. In African urban areas, research has shown that climate impacts affect women-owned businesses to a greater degree than those owned by men.

Climate impacts also increase forced migration, with men travelling to urban centres to look for work, leaving women behind to defend their rights and property, often without the education to do so effectively. In fact, research shows women in many parts of the world lack access to the knowledge and tools to defend their rights and to access subsidies and aid to support their resilience and adaptation to the effects of climate change. They also have fewer land rights, with women accounting for less than 20% of landowners worldwide but for more than 40% of the individuals working the land.

Women are also under-represented in most parliaments and other formal decision-making and policy-making bodies worldwide. Compared to many countries, South Africa fares quite well on these grounds as there are already a number of women who have decision-making roles when it comes to climate action and environmental justice. 

Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy comes to mind. Women like Makoma Lekalakala, the director of Earthlife Africa; youth activist Ayakha Melithafa and Centre for Environmental Rights executive director Melissa Fourie, are commissioners at the Presidential Climate Commission

These women come from diverse backgrounds and have faced different challenges as a result of climate change. As such, they are able to provide important insight for the commission. They are a perfect example of what women can do when given the space.

While South Africa has made progress when it comes to integrating women into climate decision-making, much more needs to be done. As the report points out, women must be recognised as often being the custodians of traditional knowledge and cultural values and thus key voices to include when designing climate-resilient policies. Ample evidence also supports the view that women often make more sustainable choices than men in the same circumstances, both inside and outside the home, when it comes to issues such as food and transport habits, as well as investing and budgeting choices.

Since women are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, they should be taking the lead in discussions on how to better adapt to the current environment and be part of the policies that are responding to climate change. But what would this look like in South Africa, specifically?

Climate change means adapting to problems such as flooding, drought, wildfires, excessive heat and water and food insecurity – impacts which will intensify as climate change worsens. Accordingly, the government is obliged to assess all the risks, together with the expected impacts, and create response plans. 

In South Africa, the Climate Change Bill, formally introduced to parliament in February, provides for the establishment of provincial and municipal forums on climate change. The forums are tasked with coordinating climate change response activities within the relevant province or municipality.

These forums, and public participation processes around climate action in general, must be truly representative and inclusive in order to ensure women’s voices are heard. When action plans are created they must take cognisance of the specific issues women face as a result of climate change to ensure maladaptation (measures with unintended consequences which limit future choice or disproportionately burden vulnerable groups) does not occur. 

One way of doing this is to ensure local activists, who often have a wealth of experience in the ways that climate change harms are already impacting their communities, are invited to testify and suggest measures that can be taken to adapt to them.

Climate change impacts are already occurring in South Africa, and as a recent report by climate expert Professor Nick King shows, climate harms affect young people and women the most. In order to ensure a gender-responsive climate action plan, participation by women is essential. 

Historically, gender inequality in our society has placed women on the back foot from both a socioeconomic and a policy and decision-making perspective. As part of transforming the oppressive systems of our country, and doing away with the injustices of the past, women must be included in the policy-making and decision-making processes that affect them.

Khumo Lesele is a candidate attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.