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Why climate change hits women harder than men

COP26 has dedicated a day to discussing the gendered impact of climate change – but why are women more affected than men?

As long as we all live on the same planet, climate change will affect everyone – but not equally.

Thanks to the way our societies are set up, some groups of people will be hit much harder by the climate crisis than others.

People living in poverty have less resilience to natural disasters, those in the global south will face hotter temperatures faster, and women are significantly more vulnerable to climate change than men.

The gendered impact of the crisis has become apparent in recent years, with the issue now so pertinent that COP26 has dedicated a day of discussion to it.

The day will feature meetings on advancing gender equality and using women as part of the solution to the climate crisis, with Nicola Sturgeon, Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all expected to make an appearance.

But why is it that women are more affected by climate change than men? From poverty to domestic workloads, we’ve broken down everything you need to know. 

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Poverty 

Living in poverty makes people more vulnerable to climate change for a variety of reasons, from poor-quality housing to living in communities more exposed to the effects of extreme weather. 

This fact is particularly relevant to women because they earn 24 per cent less than men globally, meaning they’re more vulnerable to poverty.

In poorer communities, particularly in the global south, women live in impoverished communities which are highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods.

This means that women suffer disproportionately when climate change-induced droughts, floods or diseases wipe out vital natural resources.

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Agriculture 

In many parts of the world, women represent around half of the agricultural workforce. 

While the gender balance is fairly even in this sector, the barriers to carrying out this work are not.

Only 15 per cent of land in the world is owned by women, making it much harder for those working in agriculture to be truly economically independent. 

In half of all countries around the world, women are denied property rights, while millions are barred from borrowing money for farming tools or selling their produce at markets.

As climate change worsens soil quality and makes water more scarce, these circumstances mean that women will find it increasingly difficult to buy new property – leaving them stuck on un-arable land.

Women will also find it difficult to borrow money for adaptive measures to prepare their land for the climate-induced changes ahead. 

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Domestic work 

In most parts of the world, the majority of domestic work – including cleaning, cooking and childcare – is still carried out by women. 

When climate-induced disasters strike, this leaves women shouldering the burden of cleanup operations.

After a hurricane struck Puerto Rico in 2017, for instance, an Oxfam report found that women did the majority of recovery work in the community.

“Women were usually the ones who spent hours wringing sodden towels by hand and hanging them to dry, carrying containers of water into the kitchen, bathing children in buckets, or washing floors with rainwater collected in cans. It was exhausting, and demoralizing,” the report said. 

Even outside of natural disasters, the high load of domestic work placed on women will become increasingly taxing as the climate crisis advances.

In parts of the global south, women in rural communities are usually responsible for gathering food, water and firewood.

As all these resources become more scarce, women will be forced to travel longer distances, taking time away from their other responsibilities like childcare, work or education.

The subsequent loss of income and/or training could leave women falling further behind men in their economic independence and ability to participate in decision-making. 

It’s not just women in the global south, but women all over the world who will be disproportionately affected by the climate crisis.

In a paper published – then deleted – by the UK government in October, researchers found that well-intentioned policies to cut the UK’s emissions may widen gender inequality

This is because some policies include advice to wash clothes outside of “peak” demand hours or to use the dishwasher less frequently.

Given women still perform the majority of housework, this could leave them with even more unpaid domestic responsibilities such as hand-washing dishes. 

“Domestic gender roles impact women’s time availability and flexibility,” researchers said. 

“Targeting energy [use] flexibility … impacts personal economy, leisure time and comfort.”

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Violence

The climate crisis makes societies more stressed, vulnerable and conflict-ridden due to a depletion of resources and opportunities. 

It’s widely accepted that conflict leads to higher rates of violence and sexual abuse towards women, and many fear the climate crisis could be an aggravator. 

In addition to this, if women find themselves less able to make their own income from businesses like smallholding farms, they’ll be more vulnerable to exploitation. 

Solutions 

All of these factors combine to leave women less able to participate in key decision-making around climate-related planning and policy.

However, it’s now being acknowledged that women must play a critical role in responding to climate change due to their in-depth knowledge of resource management within the household and communities. 

For instance, many women in the global south have extensive knowledge and skills relating to harvesting, food preservation and natural resource management. 

This knowledge will be vital in making the right decisions around climate change mitigation, with research showing that greater inclusion of women in leadership roles leads to improved outcomes for the planet. 

The aim of the COP26 focus on gender and climate is to ensure that these perspectives are heard loud and clear, not only to advance gender inequality, but to solve the climate crisis for everyone.

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