The theme for International Women's Day this year—"Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women's lives"—celebrates the new global movement toward equality and security for women. One big obstacle to achieving that goal is the disproportionate vulnerability of women and children in places experiencing acute environmental change, whether from sudden disasters like earthquakes or long-term shifts of the planet's climate.
For example, BBC News science reporter Mary Halton notes, some 80 percent of people who have been displaced by climate change are women. Long droughts place greater demands on rural women to support their families and communities, as men move closer to urban areas for work. Women's vulnerability to environmental challenges is compounded by existing social and economic disparities that sudden catastrophic events help magnify. "Much as climate change is accelerated by human behaviors, the impact of weather and climate events is influenced by societal structures," Halton writes. "Disasters do not affect all people equally."
In a commentary for Inter Press Service, United Nations Environment Programme officials Victor Tsang and Shari Nijman call for greater awareness of the burden women already bear in adapting to the changing world. For instance, the resource shortages caused by climate change force women and girls to spend more time searching for water and fuel than they do earning income or studying. "When the effects of climate change don't present themselves as emergencies that grab our attention on the evening news, but rather as slow-onset changes in landscapes and livelihoods, the most severe social consequences are for women and girls first," they write.
International organizations are making some encouraging efforts to confront those consequences. Late last year, the UN launched an innovative communications program to connect small-scale women farmers in the Sahel with customers, suppliers, and information. Just this week, two UN groups announced a project to help women participate in efforts to build climate resiliency in the Asia Pacific. And women's concerns have been increasingly prominent in the continuing negotiations coming out of the Paris Climate Agreement, with governments for the first time adopting a Gender Action Plan at the November UN climate conference in Bonn, Germany.
Activist Ndivile Mkoena, the South Africa coordinator for the Gender into Urban Climate Change Initiative, is one of several civil society observers at the recent climate negotiations who work closely at the intersection of gender and the environment. She doubts that progress on environmental problems can be achieved without simultaneously addressing the general inequalities experienced by women worldwide.
"Climate change largely is viewed as an environmental issue. However, it encompasses everything," Mkoena says in a video profile by Deutsche Welle. "It's a development issue, it's a human rights issue, it's a social issue."
For more on resilience and the climate threat, check out the March/April issue of the Bulletin's digital journal.