The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women: the Unequal Effects of Climate Change on Rural Women
This year, the United Nations held the 62nd annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in order to gather the international community to discuss the importance and necessity for inclusion and empowerment of women on a global level and to propose strategies to enact positive change. The first CSW was held in 1947, two years after the inception of the United Nations, with the purpose of creating international conventions and standards to change existing discriminatory male-oriented legislation as well as to foster global awareness on the legitimacy of women’s issues.
Each year CSW adopts a theme based on the current global realities of women. The theme this year was Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls. As the name suggests, there is an array of issues that affect rural women and girls. This post focuses on a particular panel of interest: Harnessing Women’s Rights to Natural Resources to Advance the Status of Rural Women.
Many assume that climate change affects people equally or affects them based on geographic location; however, this is not the case. Women are disproportionately impacted by climate change across the globe. This is often easier to see and understand in rural areas. Like in urban areas, rural women typically act as the primary caregivers and providers for the household. Rural women face unique challenges in this role in regards to collecting water and food. Due to the increased regularity and length of droughts, women are forced to travel further distances to gather water. Irregular weather patterns caused by climate change can lead to crop and livestock failure, forcing women to find alternative sources of nutrition. Both of these activities have physical tolls on women’s bodies and reduce their ability to actively participate in the formal economy.
In contrast, though urban women often act as the primary caregivers within homes as well, they do not face the same challenges rural women do when gathering necessary household resources. The unequal affect of climate change on urban women is better understood when examining the intersectionality between the lack of socioeconomic empowerment and female participation in the environmental decision making process. Globally, women are more likely than men to experience poverty, often rendering them reliant on community networks and social services. This makes it difficult for women to recover from natural disasters that affect the infrastructure, job market, and housing.
Along with the primary impacts of natural disasters (i.e. lack of shelter, food, water, etc.), women face more secondary impacts, including sexual and gender-based violence, loss or reduction of economic opportunities, and an increased workload. A prime example of this is their susceptibility to human trafficking post-natural disaster due to an increased vulnerability, need for economic stability, and lack of options. Further contributing to female economic disadvantages, the UN Women found that the female unpaid workload is more likely to increase following natural disasters because women are most likely to be tasked with caring for the ill or injured while the men continue to work, further limiting their economic opportunities. Girls were also more likely than boys to be taken out of school to aid with the domestic chores after a disaster, resulting in a lack of universal primary education and further disadvantaging females.
Given the unequal impact of climate change on women, there is an obvious need to include them in climate change decision-making bodies. However, the average representation of females in national and global climate negotiating bodies is currently less than 30%. Women, especially in rural areas, are more knowledgeable about local water systems and crop growth and are regularly forced to find alternative solutions to increase water and food availability by finding new areas to drill wells, using of modified seeds, etc., highlighting their ability to actively contribute to disaster planning and recovery. Furthermore, women account for 50% of the world’s population, and the bodies responsible for climate change response should therefore more accurately represent humanity.
In order to increase female representation in climate change decision-making, governmental and intergovernmental institutions must codify regulations enforcing gender equality in not only the environmental ministries but also gender and economic ministries. This will ensure equal representation, create a shift in cultural and societal norms that portray women as victims as opposed to equals, and create intersectionality between government efforts to address climate change and to empower women in order to make the link between climate change and gender.