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5 reasons why the climate crisis is a women’s issue

Climate crisis and gender inequality are inextricably intertwined. Everyone on the planet is feeling the effects of global heating, but the impact is disproportionately greater for women, and particularly women in sub-Saharan Africa. This is why…

By Sofanit Mesfin - Gender & Social Inclusion Coordinator, Ripple Effect.

1. Women are highly dependent on natural resources

Agriculture is the engine of growth and rural development in Africa. More than 60 per cent of women in sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture and produce up to 80 percent of the continent’s food.

Rural women’s work is intimately connected with nature. They have developed traditional cropping methods that protect natural resources and are the custodians of knowledge about forest plants and crop varieties.

Being so dependent on farming means that women are much more financially vulnerable when climate shocks affect food production.

2. Women are responsible for providing family food

Even though most women are doing the farming work, they are also expected to prepare and cook every meal. The double responsibility for women is multiplied when crops fail.

One of the farmers we work with, Ann from Kakdhimu West Village in southwestern Kenya says:

“As women we depend on vegetables for food and income. During the dry season the vegetables we grow dry up. I live quite far from the water point. When we cannot get water to irrigate our vegetables we cannot provide for our families.

“We are always at the crossroad: when it’s dry it’s too much, the crops die. When the rain comes it’s too heavy and our crops are swept away.”

3. Women collect the water, and fuel for cooking

Ensuring there is enough water and firewood to use at home is time-consuming, heavy work in rural Africa. Women in sub-Saharan Africa collectively spend four billion hours a year collecting water. Those 'unproductive hours' could have huge health and economic impacts if they were used for agriculture or elsewhere.

Sarah Odhiambi, a farmer in Agulu Kitu village, southwestern Kenya, says: “When its dry we get water from very far: we go to another village which is about 3km away.

“We have children who miss school to take care of their younger siblings when us mothers leave very early in the morning in search of water.”

Neighbouring farmer Beatrice Atieno says: “It reaches a time when all that women in this village do is look for water the whole day. We wake up early in the morning and go searching for water and then later in the evening we go back for more water.

“We often meet long queues – some waiting from last evening. It’s very cold in the morning and we can catch malaria from mosquito bites.”

4. Women seldom own land or control resources

Deep-seated customs and land tenure laws preclude women from owning and inheriting land. In North Africa, fewer than five per cent of women are landowners. Across the rest of the continent the figure is 15 per cent.

So although women are doing the great majority of the work of growing food, they are widely excluded from decisions about how the land will be used.

In Ethiopia we see that men decide what crops will be planted, so despite the direct experience that women have, they are unable to take steps to adapt to the changing climate.

And if a husband dies or migrates, women are powerless to control the land they work on. They haven’t been involved in land ownership, and far fewer rural women can read or write than men, which leaves them dangerously ill-informed about the coming impacts.

5. Men migrate, women stay behind to care for the family

In some communities, men may leave the homes in search of work, leaving women to take care of the family land and also care for children, parents, and anyone disabled in the family. Even if couples migrate together, or the women follow later, they carry these responsibilities along.

Forced migration also affects women. The UN estimates that 80% of people displaced by the climate crisis are women. 200,000 women in Ethiopia were displaced from their homes in 2018 as a result of drought and floods.

Migrant women further become exposed to risks and vulnerabilities such as trafficking, and sexual or gender-based violence.

Women must be part of the climate solutions

There are huge risks if women are excluded from the discussions and decisions about tackling the climate crisis. They need to be front and centre of the planning and implementation of mitigation and adaptation programmes.

Canada has the focus right: at COP26, they announced that 80% of their climate finance will be focused on gender issues over the following five years. At Ripple Effect we stand with the other NGOs working with women in Africa in calling for more governments and donors to allocate at least 85% of adaptation funding towards addressing gender inequalities.

At last year’s COP, only a third of the negotiations were led by women. That’s not good enough – and it’s not going to achieve the radical action that’s needed at global and community level.