Unnatural Disasters and the Fight for Gender Equality

Most people in the 21st century believe in global warming. Its impact on our physical environment is – literally – impossible to escape. The frequency and intensity of droughts, floods, storms, cyclones, heatwaves, and other extreme weather events – so-called ‘natural disasters’ – is ever-mounting, now killing more people annually than have been killed in terrorist attacks in the past forty years combined. With the global annual average temperature predicted to rise by over two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2050, and with current levels only five degrees Celsius above those experienced during the ice age, the transformations are only set to grow more extreme. Yet to most, this is background noise. As a species, we are collectively under-responding to a mass threat to our planet.

But what on earth does gender have to do with it?

“I don’t believe in global warming” Banksy, London, 2010 by Martin

An all too prevalent assumption when contemplating all things ecological was made explicit in remarks made by Kofi Anan at a press conference following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami: “Women and men experience the same hardships.” The statement is categorically incorrect, and here’s why: women and children are fourteen times more likely to die during a natural disaster than are men. 80% of those killed in Aceh, India and Sri Lanka during the aforementioned tsunami, in fact, were female. And, while it is tempting to explain away such discrepancies with the unfortunate but unavoidable fact that women are physically smaller than men, weaker, and therefore less able to withstand the brute forces of nature, this does not hold in light of studies finding a correlation between the economic and social rights enjoyed by women, and the level of incongruity in natural disaster-related death tolls. In more equal societies, disasters caused the same number of deaths in both sexes.

To view climate change only as an aspect of the physical world represents a naïve objectivity that will actually constrain any efforts to tackle it. The inconvenient truth is of course deeply embedded in a process of interaction with our social and cultural worlds too. That social inequalities between the sexes correlates to differing experiences of climate change should not actually come as a shock; we already know that the effects correlate strongly with wealth, and women make up 70% of those living in abject poverty worldwide. Cultural practices such as men’s prioritisation in the distribution of resources, the primary allocation of demanding household and family tasks to women, lack of emphasis on education for girls, and women’s lack of authority in decision-making mean that not only are women most vulnerable to death during a natural disaster, but they also tend to suffer uniquely in its aftermath. In Kenya for example, it is considered proper for men to eat first and be served the highest quality of food products at the dinner table; when resources become scarcer women are therefore more likely to go hungry, which can result in malnutrition especially for those who are pregnant or lactating. In many countries women are likely to be more reliant on subsistence too, and will thus be unduly vulnerable to alterations in the physical climate. In Myanmar, most women earn money primarily by vending dried fish; following the cyclone in 2008 87% of unmarried women and 100% of married women lost their main source of income. In this way, gender inequalities within societies actually worsen the total impact of global climate change.

But it is not a one way relationship. Global climate change, in turn, interacts with pre-existing social inequalities to further aid in their proliferation and perpetuation. Both droughts and floods are likely to result in girls (on whom the responsibility falls) having to walk farther to find clean sources of water. This distracts time and energy from their education. In fact, with less money coming in, girls are more likely to be called upon to leave school altogether and contribute to the family income, while boys continue their educations as they are expected to become the primary breadwinner. Discrepancies in levels of education is central to the perpetuation of inequality, and being deprived of an education will have a detrimental effect on the rest of their lives. In addition, it is likely that the industry entered by a young girl, such as the garment industry, will offer extremely poor working conditions. It is also not uncommon in these conditions for girls to instead be forced into prostitution or early marriage, resulting in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, or pregnancy – actually the leading cause of death for fifteen to nineteen year old girls in Bangladesh. Yet even those who escape prostitution or early marriage may be subject to STDs or unwanted pregnancy in the wake of a natural disaster due to the prevalence of sexual violence in emergency shelters and refugee camps. Dozens of rapes were reported in relief facilities following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and it is estimated that over 2,000 orphaned girls have been abducted and sold as sex slaves following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

COP21 Heads of Delegations, 2015, Paris by Presidencia de la República Mexicana

When it comes to climate change, women and men do not experience the same hardships. Gender inequalities and natural disasters are locked in a mutually reinforcing cycle that is unlikely to be broken as long as women are excluded from decision-making processes. In recent years governing bodies have increasingly recognised gender as a factor to be integrated within both the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, but thus far these integrations have been largely vague and therefore informed ineffective policies. As recently as last December, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) consisted of a decision-making body in which two thirds of delegates and nine tenths of heads of state were male. A lack of diversity in such bodies necessarily creates a limited understanding and inadequate response strategies. Women may be uniquely vulnerable to certain aspects of climate change, but they are by no means passive victims. Women know what they need: a safe place to live; access to education and information; healthcare; legal and cultural equality; a more diverse range of earning opportunities; and greater participation in climate change adaptation decision-making. And so far the world has not given it to them.

You can join the Young Feminists for Climate Justice Facebook group here and involve yourself in disaster relief efforts here. If you are already tackling climate change you could potentially win funded attendance to COP22 in November by submitting your project to Change’s 2016 Lighthouse Activities.

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