There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about the link between racial and environmental injustice. But amidst efforts to address these issues, one crucial component often seems to get left by the wayside. What about gender justice? Women, particularly BIPOC women, are critical leaders at the forefront of environmental stewardship, but also one of the demographics most disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change. So what is it about the global position of women that leads them to bear most of the responsibilities and costs associated with climate disasters, and what needs to change to provide them with justice?
To disregard gender inequities within the framework of environmental justice reflects a misrepresentation of social power dynamics as a whole. Think, for instance, about leaders in climate change discourse. For many, the face that comes to mind is white and male. Yet feminists and BIPOC activists and community members have been involved in the dialogue for 164 years or more! Why, then, is climate change and its associated challenges still a stereotypically masculine field dominated by exclusive academia, seemingly elite politicians, and expensive technology?
Women are clearly not proportionately represented in these sectors, yet numerous studies have proven girls and women to have valuable knowledge about managing their environments, often creating impactful legacies like Kenya’s Green Belt Movement as a result. Created in 1977 by professor and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt Movement was born as a grassroots network to promote women-led environmental conservation while empowering women and girls in climate resilience efforts and sustainable livelihoods. It now works at community, national, and international levels and has led to the planting of over 51 million trees in Kenya alone.
Women commonly assume community leadership in food security (women are responsible for 65% of household food production in Asia and 75% in sub-Saharan Africa!), caretaking, and household management and have always played a stronger role than men in the management of the ecosystem services that they rely upon to fulfill these responsibilities. Most of the one billion women living rurally worldwide depend directly upon natural resources for their livelihoods and hold strong operational knowledge of agriculture, pastoralism, and forest and watershed management.
Women also hold context-specific skills developed in response to local and community conditions along with a heightened ability to cope with the everyday changes brought about by climate change. Take 19-year-old Indigenous climate activist Artemisa Xakriabá, who grew up with an intimate knowledge of her home in the Amazon rainforest and has built an international platform to fight rampant fires, droughts, and forceful deforestation of her tribe’s land for farming and mining by the Brazilian government. Women are generally poised as key, albeit frequently underappreciated, leaders in movement-building for just and sustainable communities. It stands to reason that adaptation efforts to combat environmental challenges are reliant upon the efforts and strength of women, and must focus on gender justice if such efforts hope to find success.
Unfortunately, these stewardship roles taken up by women are constantly being disrupted. In the 2007 assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of leading international scientists confirmed that gender roles and relations definitively shape people’s capacity to adapt to climate change worldwide.
This connection may seem obvious, but consider its more insidious implications: if women in rural, climate-vulnerable areas (including places like Southeast Asia, Pacific Island nations, Central Africa, Latin America, and the Indian subcontinent) focus their efforts on collecting water and fuel to raise children and perform agricultural work, they have less time for and in some cases are discouraged from learning coping strategies and lifesaving skills, such as how to climb trees or swim. In some such cultures, women are even further restricted by gendered codes of dress that limit their mobility, and are not permitted to evacuate their homes without consent from their husbands. This puts women at a severe disadvantage during climate crises, ultimately making them over four times likelier than men to die during and immediately after disasters.
Even if they survive the event itself, women make up 80% of people displaced by climate change. The aftermath of extreme weather events is extremely dangerous for them because such events have the capacity to disrupt local security safety nets and leave women and children unaccompanied or separated from their families and communities, such as in India. In these post-disaster situations, women and girls become highly vulnerable to human trafficking: an industry which has been found to increase by 20 to 30% during disasters like droughts, floods, and famines. In addition to safety, women in particular also face severe problems with sanitation, health, and hygiene in the wake of climate catastrophes, especially in areas where they have to travel long distances to access water or productive work for income.
In the absence of a climate-related disaster, environmental degradation serves to weaken the stability of women in day-to-day life too. For instance, coal extraction techniques such as mountaintop removal not only destroy landscapes that store carbon, but also increase the chance that local communities are displaced. Women are less likely than men to be compensated for such displacement caused by resource extraction, and energy projects bring an influx of men to the community who create gender dynamics that can erode women’s rights.
Similarly, forest clearing isn’t only a carbon emissions issue leading to an increase in greenhouse gases; many women depend on forests for food, health and livelihoods (especially Indigenous women in their ancestral forested lands, like the Guajajara women warriors or those in the Ceibo Alliance). In all cases when the environment is impacted, so are the resources many women need to survive and safely provide for their families and communities. Thus, current environmental justice movements must move beyond fighting solely for protection of land and towards supporting the most numerous and capable stewards of the earth: women.
All of these gender disparities, from place-based knowledge and community leadership to climate disaster survival and local safety, matter.
They matter not only in the context of fundamental human rights, but also because the burdens that fall upon the shoulders of women inhibit their ability to contribute to meaningful climate solutions that would help alleviate environmentally-driven costs to everyone on the planet. When we fail to bring all of the brightest minds to the table or draw on all of our available collective knowledge, we lose a momentous opportunity to get creative in addressing the enormous challenge before us. As a society, we must seek to rectify the underlying dynamics which contribute to arbitrary gendered differences. We must improve women’s livelihoods by ensuring their control of natural resources and development tools like access to loans and credit-building finance, vocational and life-saving training, family planning and sexual health information, and outreach. We must extend an invitation to women to influence politics at all levels, from the home to the national scale, because when women are involved in decision-making they are more likely to introduce and support solutions that improve the environment in tandem with human opportunities. Above all, we must recognize, value, and uplift women’s continual contributions both as pivotal climate resilience leaders and as gatekeepers of community welfare and future-planning.