Climate Change Puts Women and Girls at a Disadvantage

In the world’s poorest communities, women and girls bear the brunt of these consequences

By Mara O'Brien James is CARE Canada's President and CEO (Interim)

Climate change is just the latest in the long list of world issues that puts women at a disadvantage.

The poorest 1 billion people⁠—the majority of which are women and girls⁠—are responsible for just 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, when conflict or disaster strikes, women and girls disproportionately face displacement, family separation, and the continual risk of violence.

The effects of climate change are intensifying and increasingly driving humanitarian emergencies, forced migration, violence, conflict, and health and gender inequality.

In the world’s poorest communities, it is women and girls who bear the brunt of these consequences.

When families struggle to grow enough food to eat or earn enough money to send all their kids to school, it’s usually the girls who are the last to eat and first to be kept home from school. In these same communities, women are frequently denied the right to own the land they’ve farmed their entire lives, leaving them struggling to feed their families and earn an income.

Both during and in the aftermath of natural disasters, women are more likely to die. Access to resources, capabilities and opportunities, and discrimination based on gender directly impacts a woman’s ability to survive an emergency, humanitarian crisis, or violent conflict.

Discriminatory gender structures impact a woman’s ability to survive. Because women are already less likely to earn an income or have access to a bank account, a woman will have less money and resources to help herself and her family survive when a humanitarian disaster strikes.

Decisions about how to respond to these crises are usually made by men and this means the rights of women and girls are often overlooked.

To those critics who might deny the impacts of the climate crisis on women, I urge you to look more closely at what is happening now in Zambia where the effects of climate change are undeniable.

Due to recurring and prolonged droughts, approximately 2.3 million Zambians are in urgent need of food assistance. Temperatures in Southern Africa are rising at around twice the global rate and this is causing extreme weather shocks in Zambia. Drought in Zambia has translated to food insecurity and malnutrition. Around 40% of Zambian children under five years old are stunted due to malnutrition.

The climate crisis has placed additional pressure on women in Zambia, who already spent much of their time collecting and preparing food and caring for children. Since resources are increasingly scarce, women must spend all day searching for water and food.

While women and girls face great risk in times of crisis, they also have the potential to lead. Women are first responders during a crisis and they are also the key to a successful transition from crisis to stability. This is true in the home, in the community, and at the national level.

By investing in women's leadership, we have the potential to create ripples of change of that benefits us all.

Governments, aid agencies, and local authorities must ensure that women and girls are not only seen and heard within the humanitarian system, but able to play meaningful roles in shaping humanitarian policies and programs. We must invest in women's capacity to participate and lead in disaster preparedness, risk reduction, emergency response, and transitional development.

We must make room for women at the table so that we can ensure fairer, more ambitious, and more sustainable solutions to the climate crisis and the humanitarian emergencies it is creating.

We cannot overcome the challenges facing humanity with half of the population left on the sidelines.

Mara O'Brien James

Mara O'Brien James is CARE Canada's President and CEO (Interim)