Why every feminist should be an environmentalist
Is climate change sexist?
By Megan Lambert
Illustration by Adeline Schöne
There’s no denying we’re in the midst of a climate crisis.
Around the world, droughts, floods, tsunamis, forest fires and other natural disasters are increasing in intensity and frequency - causing widespread damage and huge loss of life. Without being too depressing, this so-called “biological annihilation” will burden all life on earth, yet the imminent impacts of climate change are falling on the most vulnerable and marginalised groups. A significantly impacted group: women.
This is why we need ecofeminism. Ecofeminism 'is an activist and academic movement that sees critical connections between the fomination of nature and the exploitation of women'. Put simply, those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are the world’s poorest, and the majority of the world’s poor are women. Gendered work roles and inequalities in education mean the majority of women in the developing world are dependent on jobs that are not only lower paid, but sensitive to the climate. In sub-Saharan African countries for example, the majority of women are responsible for providing for the family through subsidence farming, resource collection and management, whilst men are more likely to be employed in wage-labour.
Following the 2008 Cyclone in Myanmar, an estimated 87 percent of unmarried women and 100 percent of married women lost their main source of income in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta. Women tend to have limited power in assessing land ownership, credit, education and technology and thus have limited economic opportunities for developing climate resilient livelihoods. In Sub-Saharan African countries, despite producing most agricultural output, women own 20 to 70% less land than men.
Cyclone Nargis 2008, Myanmar
Responses to climate change are reinforcing gendered work roles and educational gaps.
In Ethiopia, men with their relative mobility commonly migrate out of vulnerable communities. This has left many women with increased agricultural workloads and many daughters being taken out of school to help. Elsewhere, in Humla, one of the poorest regions in Nepal, the planting of drought resistant crops that demand more labour work, are similarly minimising female attendance in schools. Even more worryingly, in Bangladesh, Indian, Sri Lanka and Kenya, following a natural disaster, it is common for families to marry off their daughters early to minimise household size and benefit from funds obtained from the groom’s family.
And if that’s not enough evidence for you, global data suggests women and girls are also more prone to dying in climate-related disasters. In the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh of the 140,000 people who died, 90 percent were women. This was largely blamed on the fact that many women in Bangladesh are not taught to swim and drowned. Since a disproportionate amount of men work in public spaces, many men received warning information and were able to evacuate safely, whilst women- who in some Bengali communities cannot leave their house without a man - were at home, unsuspecting to what was about to happen.
Cyclone Gorky, 1991, Bangladesh
Various case studies also link the climate change impacts to increasing gender-based violence against women.
Perhaps nowhere is more evident of this than in Dafar, Sudan, where droughts are forcing women and girls to travel much longer distances to collect water and firewood, increasing their risk for sexual assault. In one refugee camp 200 assaults were reported over a five-week period in 2006 from women having to commute into unknown territory.
In the Solomon Islands, following the Gizo tsunami in 2007, women in the many temporary displacement campsites, reported that it was common for men in the camp to wait around water sites to watch them bathe.
Hundreds of cases of rape were reported in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Whilst many women also reported to being forced into using sexual favours to obtain vital aid by the male-dominated committees who ran the camps.
Even within the safety of their homes, women have experienced increasing domestic violence after disasters. The Women’s Protection Technical Working Group reported that in Myanmar, domestic violence cases increase by 30 percent following Cyclone Nargis, largely linked to increasing male alcohol consumption. Elsewhere, on the small Vanuatau island province Tafe, the Women Counselling Centre reported a 300 percent increase in domestic violence cases following two tropical cyclones in 2011.
Only touching on a handful of examples, it is clear that the burden of the climate crisis tends to fall disproportionately on women. With the main goal of any feminist, and any other social justice movement being to eradicate these oppressive systems in pursuit of a society that is just for all, climate change and other environmental problems should be a core concern.
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