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Gender + Sexuality

The Climate Crisis Will Kill Women First

Two organizations want the Supreme Court to recognize the lethal vulnerability of girls and women to a changing planet.

Paula Ethans 15 Nov 2019 |

Paula Ethans (@PaulaEthans) is a human rights lawyer who has been called to the bar in Ontario. She is a Fellow at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in its migration section.

Climate change is here, it’s happening and it’s going to forever change this planet if we don’t act soon. We have already seen some of its disastrous effects: disappearing ice caps, loss of biodiversity, animal extinction and increased frequency and severity of natural disasters.

But one of the effects excluded from the mainstream narrative is how the climate crisis is uniquely hurting women. The gender-climate link remains in the shadows. It’s a footnote rather than a headline, an appendix at the bottom of a report.

The effects of climate change disproportionately impact women and girls, especially those who are Indigenous, racialized and living in poverty. We should be shouting it from the rooftops: the climate crisis will kill women first.

Two Canadian non-profit organizations want to talk about the gender dimensions of climate change in front of the Supreme Court of Canada. Last week, the National Association of Women and the Law and Friends of the Earth asked the court permission to intervene in the controversial and highly publicized carbon tax case being appealed to the Supreme Court by Saskatchewan and Ontario.

If granted leave to intervene in the case, NAWL and FOE hope to argue that climate change disproportionately impacts women and girls, and that Canada needs an “all hands on deck” approach, rooted in substantive equality, whereby every level of government takes action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“It is important to include a gender analysis when it comes to climate change because this is necessary to ensure that the impacts of climate change do not further entrench gender inequality,” says Nathalie Chalifour, co-counsel for FOE and NAWL.

NAWL and FOE hope to put forth two arguments to support their position.

First, the federal and provincial governments must work together, through a cooperative approach to federalism, to fight climate change. The division of powers must be interpreted in a way that embraces collaboration amongst governments, which in turn promotes substantive equality rights and environmental justice for women and girls.

Chalifour says a cooperative approach to federalism “is the only interpretation that is acceptable from a climate justice perspective, since all levels of government have to work collaboratively to address the climate emergency.”

Second, the federal government should be able to enact legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the emergency branch of Peace, Order and Good Government. The POGG doctrine, laid out in Section 91 of our Constitution, affords the federal government power over matters under provincial jurisdiction in certain situations. Under the emergency branch of POGG, the federal government may invoke a state of emergency, granting itself special emergency powers. Given the scale, scope and urgency of the climate crisis, the interveners argue, the federal government should be able to use the POGG doctrine to take action against climate change on a national level.

The overarching message of NAWL and FOE is that a piecemeal approach to environmental justice, as Saskatchewan and Ontario are pushing for, will uniquely hurt women because women are more adversely affected by climate change.

The gender dimensions of climate change are complex, but stark.

UN Women studies show that climate change disproportionately exposes women to risk, increases their loss of livelihoods and weakens their personal security. Both during and in the aftermath of disasters, women are also more likely to die. Simply put, the climate crisis is hurting women far more than men.

Why is it that women are disproportionately affected?

Women, especially those in poor and rural communities, receive an inequitable distribution of resources and land, have a higher dependence on local natural resources, hold fewer economic assets, are often not involved in decision-making processes and face harmful cultural norms.

In short, women start out with less, so when crops don’t grow, or hurricanes destroy towns, women suffer more than their male counterparts.

There are countless examples that illustrate just how badly women are affected by climate change.

According to FAO, women make up 60 to 80 per cent of the farmers in developing countries, so when climate change produces longer droughts or more floods, women’s livelihoods are the most affected. For example, seaweed production in Zanzibar has declined as the surrounding waters have warmed. Since 80 per cent of Zanzibar’s seaweed farmers are women, women primarily suffer the loss.

When climate change causes crops to dry up or floods to wipe away farmland, and a family struggles financially, things get bad for women and girls. When rains are poor and yields are low, tensions run high in households and domestic violence increases. When families are struggling to put food on the table, it is primarily girls who drop out of school to help around the house. In some countries, when household budgets get tight, we see an increase in child brides.

An International Labour Office study found that outdoor air pollution had a gendered effect on workers’ absence. When pollution levels rise, women’s working hours are reduced because they have to care for children who stay home from school due to air-associated illnesses.

Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change reports, “primarily due to their reliance on natural resources for their livelihoods and the multiple forms of discrimination that they faced due to their gender, ethnicity and level of poverty.” Women in other marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ people, urban poor and those from rural communities also face heightened consequences of climate change.

When natural disasters strike, which occur more often and with greater severity due to climate change, women and girls suffer, struggle to bounce back, or simply don’t make it out alive.

In the most practical sense, sometimes women can’t escape. Mary Robinson, the seventh president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that when disaster hits, women can’t always get away in time: they are slowed down by gathering their children, or they’ve never been taught how to swim.

When natural disasters strike, women and girls are at an increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, including sexual abuse, physical abuse and trafficking. Plan International says these risks are heightened when women and girls are collecting food, water and firewood or staying in temporary shelters.

UN figures show that women comprise 80 per cent of those displaced by climate change. Following natural disasters, it is harder for poor women to economically recover than poor men.

Amidst this overwhelmingly dark outlook for women and girls, there may be a glimmer of hope. Last year, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which includes 23 experts on women’s rights from around the world, directly addressed the gender-related dimensions of disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change.

It marks the first time that a UN treaty body has done so. The recommendation explicitly sets out how climate change is a women’s issue, linking the climate emergency to conflict, displacement and migration.

Most important, it makes it clear that state parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women can and should be held accountable for the climate emergency’s impact on women and girls.

In every sense, this is just the beginning of the devastating effects we are going to see from the climate crisis. But it’s also just the beginning of what we need to do to address the gendered dimensions of climate change. An official recognition of this from the UN is a positive step, but it’s far from enough.

Now, we need to get serious.

First, we need to educate others, disseminate this information far and wide. Climate change is killing women, and that shouldn’t be kept a secret. Let’s share reports, lead workshops, discuss with our friends. Let’s shout it from the rooftops.

Second, we need to include more women in decision-making processes around eco-justice. This is a man-made problem that requires a feminist solution. Capitalism got us here, and intersectional feminism can get us out. We need Indigenous land defenders, who have been warning us for centuries about our harmful practices, to finally be heard. We need to invite poor women, rural women and trans women to the table and listen to them.

Third, we need to honour the women and girls already doing the hard work and amplify their voices. We must empower the Greta Thunbergs of the world, young women and girls like Autumn Peltier, Isra Hirsi, Alexandria Villaseñor, Xiye Bastida, and so many more.

Fourth, we need to pressure our governments and NGOs. Not too long ago, gender was simply an addendum to international development. Now, the front page of every international NGO website discusses the importance of empowering women. With the same determination, we can compel politicians, organizations and environmental activists to take seriously the gendered impacts of the climate crisis.

Climate change is hurting women, but we won’t go down without a fight.  [Tyee]

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