Abstract in italiano

While climate change is nowadays widely recognized as one of the global challenges of our times, the gender-biased nature of this phenomenon has still to be acknowledged. Climate change has a more severe negative impact on poor people and poor countries, given their high dependence on the availability of natural resources and their limited adaptive capacities. However, ignoring the fact that women and girls do far worse than men and boys on a wide range of factors that predispose them to poverty, can translate into inefficient policies and financial provisions to address climate change.
Hence, policy and decision makers in the field of climate change need to avoid being gender blind.

The disproportionate effects on climate change: the missing part of the equation.

Women are impacted disproportionally by climate change effects for a variety of reasons, mainly divisible in economic and social factors that make them less adaptive in face of natural disasters in the short and long term (Figure 1 and Figure 2). Women’s vulnerability starts already among the school benches: in case of extreme weather conditions such as droughts, girls are the first to be pulled out from school in order to work and to financially help their own families. Or in more extreme cases, they are forced into an arranged marriage because their dowry represents an opportunity to ease the economic burden of the family in times of crises. Therefore, women often lack the skills and the knowledge that would be crucial to find better paying jobs, which would make them more resilient to climate change’s impact. In terms of education, because of the limited resources at disposal, boys are prioritized. In fact, in low and middle-income countries, girls spend less time at school, less time studying outside of school and more time on unpaid work. This is a barrier that is worth bringing down: a study conducted in 2017 by the Brookings Institute found  that for every additional year of schooling a girl receives on average, her country’s resilience to climate disasters can be expected to improve by 3.2 points (as measured by the ND-GAIN Index, which calculates a country’s vulnerability to climate change in relation to its resilience - Figure 3).

The lack of education is not the only factor to keep women in the poverty trap, their work burden is another strong limiting factor. In fact, women have to juggle between competing roles, an exercise of daily balance that translates into time poverty and consequently implies as well income poverty. Women usually attend to the needs of the children and the elderly in their household. At the same time, they are responsible for a wide of range of tasks such as producing agricultural crops, tending animals, processing and preparing food, working for wages in agricultural or other rural enterprises, engaging in trade and marketing, maintaining their homes, looking after the energy needs of the household and collecting fuelwood and water. Especially water scarcity represents a greater burden for women and girls because in developing countries they are directly responsible for collecting and fetching water in their community. The scarcer water gets, the more time consuming and difficult it becomes to complete this task. Not only this situation exacerbates their time poverty and often exempts them from school, it also makes them more vulnerable to abuse and attack along the way. These risks are extended also in terms of sanitation: women are not safe when they use an open defecation site. And, because of their needs during pregnancy, menstruation and child rearing, the availability of sanitized water becomes also a serious health matter.

To complicate matters, women make up 43 % of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, a sector that is extremely vulnerable to the climate change impacts. On average, this percentage ranges from about 20 % in Latin America to almost 50% in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. And, in some countries, the share is even higher. However, not only they work in a sector that is put into great pressure from climate change, their position is also weaker in comparison to their male colleagues since in half of the countries in the world women are unable to assert equal land and property rights. Women register a lower land ownership because of existing social norms that see land ownership as a male prerogative. However, landownership is far from being a legal detail. It is essential in order to be able to rent or sell the land. Therefore, absence of ownerships results in lost revenue, profit and emergency resources. In addition, it also constitutes an important pre-requisite for access to financial aid, extension services or for joining producer organizations. All elements that can help improve their economic situation and to increase productivity, launching a beneficial circle.

However, often the obstacles are also enshrined in social norms that limit women’s efforts for self-determination. Gender codes, especially in developing countries, are stringent in terms of clothing and freedom of movement. This is evident in case of natural disasters: a study published in 2007 by researchers at the London School of Economics and the University of Essex found that natural disasters in 141 countries killed decidedly more women than men between 1981 and 2002. Indeed, women and children made up the 77% of the victims of the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, and even a higher proportion, 96% during the Solomon Islands’ deadly wave in 2007. This is because their clothing often impedes agile movements and activities such as swimming or climbing a tree are not considered socially acceptable for women, so they are never really taught how to do both. Details that can turn crucial in the case of a natural disaster.

Women as vectors of change against climate change

The ambition to limit global warming to well below 2C and to reach the 1.5 target of the Paris Climate Change Agreement is so high that, in order to turn into reality, 51% of humanity, which is comprised of women and girls, cannot be left out of the decision making process. As we have previously highlighted, it is true that women are disproportionally impacted by climate change because of their wide range of responsibilities connected to providing food and water and managing energy resources for their families. But, it is precisely because of this burden that, provided with the right tools, they can be great actors of change (Figure 4 and Figure 5). For example, because of their pervasive engagement in the agricultural sector, if women were to be equipped with financial resources, training and new technologies, they could, according to the UN, increase their agricultural yields by 20 to 30%, increase the total agricultural output by 2.5 to 4% and by doing so they would reduce world hunger by 12 or 17 %.
Their role is crucial also in terms of energy resources management. Around 2.9 billion people use solid fuel (wood, coal, charcoal, agricultural residues or animal waste) to cook their food and heat their homes. 
However, in developing countries, women are responsible of collecting biomass energy with consequences both on their health and free time at disposal. According to data on 13 countries in sub-Saharan African countries, girls spend 18 hours a week collecting fuel or water, in comparison to the 15 hours a week spent by boys. This means also that their exposure to polluting energy technologies, such as cooking stoves is different. Household air pollution has caused considerable numbers of premature deaths, considering women cook for prolonged hours, the health risks they are exposed to are higher. For the same reason, providing them with cleaner energy means can give beneficial results for the entire family and community, multipling the reach of this positive change.
The magnitude of the challenge ahead is such that a partial solution that takes into consideration only half of the population is not feasible anymore. Women have responsabilities that directly impact and are impacted by climate change, it is time to pair these responsabilities with ownership.