At the intersection of gender, health and climate change

At the intersection of gender, health and climate change

Gender equality and climate change are inextricably linked, and for positive outcomes both require the right elected leaders, funding for the feminist movement and a commitment from everyone to be a global citizen

What does gender equality have to do with climate change and health?

We are all part of an interconnected global ecological system. Keeping the earth’s temperature below the critical threshold of 1.5°C simply will not be possible without women’s leadership because we are more than 50% of the world’s population. Without us, governments cannot scale up progress on climate change. Indigenous women in Latin America are already leading the way by protecting biodiversity and defending rain forests. In Europe, feminists are protesting to ensure healthier, greener cities for all. Young women and girls in Asian cities are marching in the streets for climate justice. And Arab women will speak up loud and clear at the next climate summit to be held in Egypt.

Why are we mobilising? Preserving Mother Earth is a feminist issue. United Nations reports show that during natural disasters in developing countries, more women than men die. Violence against women and sex trafficking increases after floods and wildfires. Women produce up to 80% of the food in Africa but own less than 10% of the land, making it difficult for them to adapt to droughts. And household air pollution due to solid fuels used in cooking stoves is a top cause of female deaths from non-communicable diseases.

But make no mistake. This is not just an issue for developing countries. In many industrialised countries, poor women and girls often have less access to social and health services and live in sub-standard housing. As a result, they are less resilient during and after extreme weather events such as floods. Migrants and refugees who flee their climate-affected countries face challenges as they are the first to lose their jobs in their new homes during financial downturns.

Furthermore, climate-related emergencies add to the burden of women in the care economy. Women make up more than 70% of all health service providers. Underpaid and often overworked, this vital workforce is being put under extraordinary stress during climate-related emergencies. The impact goes far beyond these women: it threatens the viability of the entire health system.

How are these issues related to women’s rights to health?

Imagine how extreme heat affects a pregnant woman in a remote Indian village. She must travel on foot for kilometres for a prenatal check-up. When her nutrition needs are greatest, the climate emergency is disrupting the systems that deliver food and fresh water. Due to climate change, health services are damaged and vector-borne diseases increase along with heat-related deaths. These health risks increase for everyone, but more for disadvantaged women and girls.

How can governments make a difference?

If we are to fully participate to combat the effects of climate change, women must have equal social, legal and economic rights. One of the most universal challenges facing women and girls is gender-based violence, particularly sexual violence. It has a devastating effect for the entire society: those women are deprived of their freedoms – to get an education, to work where they want and even to run for public office. Beyond that, it imposes high economic costs due to an increased burden on mental and other health services.

To tackle this issue, governments have to address the power imbalance that shapes social norms, institutions and laws. Thanks to the UN, we have set global standards to make progress. This includes the Beijing Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Convention on Biodiversity also provide for gender equality and women’s leadership. Governments need to use these together, not as isolated plans.

The good news is that CEDAW can help change social norms even in a country like the United States, which has not ratified the treaty. Mayors in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toledo and 70 other US jurisdictions have joined the Cities for CEDAW movement. They are changing laws to address violence against women. They are also defending women’s rights to fair housing, health care and clean environments while ensuring protection for women facing discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity, race, age or disability.

What can we all do today to make a difference?

When young environment activists ask me this question, my answer is simple: vote. When feminist leaders ask, I say: vote. Put the wrong political leaders in charge and they can throw our movement into reverse by pulling out of the Paris Accord, withdrawing funding to the UN Population Fund for women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health and denigrating the Human Rights Council. The right elected leaders, on the other hand, can defend women’s human rights, universal health coverage and climate justice.

Funding the feminist and women’s movements is another key priority. We are the most powerful non-violent movement of the 21st century, capable of accelerating equality, development and peace in much of the world. But backlash threatens to undermine our efforts. Feminist foreign policies are a good step forward, but they lose momentum without strong, progressive social movements. More funders should make commitments to the Generation Equality Forum spearheaded by Mexico and France and supported by UN Women.

Finally, everyone should be a global citizen. I have spent a lot of time in rural communities and I know that villagers can make choices to benefit all of humanity. Global awareness and regard for all peoples means we put ourselves in the shoes of the most disadvantaged – the majority of whom are women and girls. As a first step, we should be grateful for Indigenous women leaders who risk their lives to protect a community of life and future for our children.

The Paris Accord process has made commitments to gender equality and health. The World Health Organization makes a convincing environmental health argument for climate action. But we need to go one step further and ensure that policies are in the hands of feminist leaders – men and women – who will make women’s human rights their guiding principle.