/ 21 June 2023

Climate change hits African women

Tea Plantation In South Africa
America has pledged $53 million for developing countries. (Photo by: Universal Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The African continent is the most affected by the adverse effects of climate change despite contributing the least to global warming. 

Climate change is hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and contributing to food insecurity, population displacement and stress on water resources.

Increasing temperatures and sea levels, changing precipitation patterns and increasingly extreme weather patterns are threatening health and safety, food and water security and socio-economic development in Africa. 

Climate change amplifies existing gender inequalities and poses unique threats to women and girls’ livelihoods, health and safety. They have lower chances of surviving climate disasters because of the disparities in access to information and safety resources.  

Resource competition and depletion exacerbates different forms gender-based violence such as sexual violence, psychological violence and human trafficking. According to the World Bank, times of resource scarcity lead to women being more likely to be coerced into sexual exploitation in exchange for goods or services. For example, food vendors, farmers or landowners in Uganda at times insist on trading sex despite the women negotiating for the provision of labour in exchange for food. 

Girls spend more time fetching water, have fewer days in school or may even drop out. They walk increasingly longer distances to find potable water and food, making them vulnerable to sexual assault and human trafficking. Some families resort to marrying off their daughters to better cope with food or resource scarcity. 

In families where men leave home to seek a living elsewhere, women and children are left to fend for themselves, making them more vulnerable to violence and sexual exploitation. Although data remains limited, the violence and intimidation experienced by women environmental activists is cause for concern.  

Women’s mortality caused by natural disasters has historically been higher than that of men. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, women and children represented more than three quarters of those displaced in 2007 when rains and flooding in 18 African countries left an estimated 1.5 million people homeless. In most countries, natural disasters and their aftermath narrow the gender gap in life expectancy, which differs inversely to women’s socio-economic status. 

Climate change induced displacement is a harsh reality for millions of people today, with increased vulnerabilities experienced by women, especially women with lower levels of economic participation. Because women are the primary caretakers of households and look after children and older people, they are often not able to leave vulnerable areas as easily as men. Today, poor women are 14 times as likely to die from a climate disaster than men, because of displacement risks.

Around the world, women depend more on, yet have less access to, natural resources. In many regions, women bear a disproportionate responsibility for securing and preparing food, water and fuel. Women’s economic labour remains concentrated in the agricultural sector, and  during periods of drought and erratic rainfall, women, as agricultural workers and primary procurers, work harder to secure income and resources for their families. This puts added pressure on girls, who often have to leave school to help their mothers manage the increased burden, especially of unpaid care. Consequently, emerging scholarship is supporting the development of climate-smart varieties of staple crops such as rice in Mali, banana and plantain in Cote d’Ivoire and maize in Benin. 

The promise of a new climate economy requires tangible actions across key economic systems, some of which include targeted investments into sustainable water infrastructure. Moving away from fossil fuel-based economies to clean, environmentally friendly economies is a complex task that requires changes to many social and economic systems. Therefore, gender-responsive solutions to climate change through the direct involvement of women — not just as beneficiaries but as partners — in the design, implementation and evaluation of all climate action is crucial for sustainable development. 

Additionally, supporting the availability of gender statistics and sex-disaggregated data will help ensure that national policies and frameworks are gender-sensitive to aptly respond to the socio-economic problems posed by the climate crisis. 

To adapt and build resilience to climate change, sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions all in the context of climate-smart agriculture

Karabo Mokgonyana is a legal and development practitioner and programme director for the Sesi Fellowship and Skill Hub. Mahlatse Ramoroka is an international development practitioner in global public service, focusing on development economics and human rights.

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