80% of People Displaced by Climate Change are Female
But Women Continue to Lead the Fight for Environmental Justice.
Women are disproportionately affected by climate change—largely because they account for the majority of the world's poor, are underrepresented in decision-making positions and are dependent on natural resources for their livelihood, which are under threat by environmental degradation. In developing countries, approximately two-thirds of the female labor force, and more than 90 percent in many African countries, are engaged in agricultural work, according to the United Nations.
Environmental ministers perform critical roles in environmental policy. Across the 881 national environmental-sector ministries from the 193 UN Member States, only 12% of ministers are women.
Source: IUCN Global Gender office
Despite these statistics, women are leading the fight against climate change both domestically and globally. In early February, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York introduced the Green New Deal to Congress. Cortez, 29, faces a large amount of backlash, with top lawmakers inaccurately claiming that the deal will result in the end of hamburgers and likening the resolution to genocide.
"Climate chaos is a form of mass suicide. Racism, sexism and climate denial are so intimately linked—so intimately—that you can't make progress in either one fully without making progress in the other," says Susan Griffin, an early founder of the philosophical movement known as Ecofeminism. "So, I think it's not insignificant that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would be the one initiating the Green New Deal."
Ecofeminism, which emerged in the mid-1970s, is resurfacing across the nation as several universities, including Yale, Wesleyan and Swarthmore College, are offering courses on the philosophical theory. Ecofeminists argue that the oppression of women is intrinsically linked to the oppression of nature. The root of the issue is not biological; it is social construction.
Their school of thought is supported by modern environmental disasters: In Japan, a 1995 earthquake killed more than one and a half times more women than men and a 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India caused surviving men to outnumber women three to one.
According to Jill Johnston, expert in environmental justice, women have historically played an important role in the climate justice movement within the United States.
Griffin, 76, who has been arrested alongside Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker during protests, acknowledges the power of physical engagement in political advocacy.
"I was listening to Angela Davis on the radio and she was talking about the joy in political movements," she says. "I worry about a generation in which a lot of the connection is done by iPhone, computer and email, and people aren't in the same space together that often." Griffin stresses the importance of physical organization, which she notes is what made the 2016 Women's March so powerful.
Johnston states that women typically play a strong role in the identification of problems in a given community, as well as the on-the-ground mobilizing of local members to address these issues.
One place where women were key in grassroots environmental activism was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. According to Anne Milling, founder of Women of the Storm, females typically lead these movements because they are passionate about restoring their nests.
Women of the Storm is a non-political alliance that was established in New Orleans after the devastating storm. A group of 140 women from diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic status marched on Washington to demand road home money, levee protection, money to restore the wetlands and, most important to the women, a physical visit from congressmen to their state to see the devastation firsthand. Following the lobbying efforts, the number of elected officials who traveled to New Orleans jumped from 35 to 204.
"We worked like Noah's Ark," Milling says. "Nobody in the group was a skilled lobbyist or anything like that. We were housewives. We were grandmothers. We were shopkeepers. We were just a motley group of women. But they all look nice and they were beautifully prepared."
Some women are cleaning up the environmental mess beyond the United States' borders as well. One reason for such a global act is the growing recognition that climate change and gender rights are correlated, which has led to several international measures. In 2017, the Gender Action Plan was signed at the annual Conference of the Parties (COP23) as a roadmap to strengthen women's role in climate policy.
According to Johnston, the two areas that are being hit first and worst by the impacts of climate change are the coastal regions of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Bangladesh is one of the first countries that will disappear because of the effects of climate change, according to Saber Azam, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative. Azam has spent time on the ground working with the Rohingya refugees. He cautions others to acknowledge that these people are already stateless because of an ethnic cleansing and, now, are being further displaced by environmental degradation.
Afghanistan, Azam's country of origin, is another country in South Asia that faces environmental catastrophe due to an increasing number of droughts. As riverbeds dry up, women have to travel farther for water. In addition, they face new safety threats along their route, which includes rape, Azam explains.
Azam describes the consequences of an increasing number of droughts for women in Afghanistan.
Azam looks to Africa as the toughest area affected by climate change because of the exponential expansion of the Sahara Desert. During his more than two decades working with the UNHCR, Azam continued to travel back to Africa to plant trees with refugee women in what he refers to as a David-against-Goliath effort.
"Women are at the prime line to do tree plantation," Azam says. "When it comes to a refugee situation or a place affected by crisis, men consider this work indecent to their stature and then only a woman has to do it."
Azam references Rwanda as a place where reforesting has seen successful results. Restocking forests helps to cool the warming planet and protects wildlife by restoring natural habitats, thereby mitigating the effects of climate change. While in many communities, men feel above this work, women do their part to affect everyone, regardless of gender.
Azam recalls a time when he set up a refugee camp in Rwanda, a country known for being environmentally-forward.
Kenya is another country where women are providing for the greater community. Gender inequality, specifically in developing nations, creates a vicious cycle of extreme poverty, which is tragically connected to climate change. As a vehicle to combat this phenomenon, members of the BOMA project, an NGO that empowers women in the drylands of East Africa by implementing a poverty graduation program, teach local women the financial and business skills they need to make them economically resilient in their communities.
"Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth...these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women's empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all."
-Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations (UN) in an address to the 66th General Assembly.
Women are specifically targeted for this program because studies have found that women tend to reinvest up to 90% of their incomes and resources back into their families and their communities, according to Nicole Mills, director of marketing and communications for the BOMA Project.
In the same manner, society is going to have to invest means back into the planet.
"We're going to have to recognize that we're dependent on this biosphere for our survival. And that were part and parcel. We are nature. It's not that we're living in nature, we are nature and we're doing this to ourselves," Griffin says.