Unequal suffering: female vulnerability in climate change



As the term climate change takes a comfortable position in our everyday lexicon, so does fear of the phenomenon itself. But some groups are more acutely vulnerable than others.

Female vulnerability to climate change is a simmering discourse that attempts to understand the ways in which disempowered female communities worldwide will be affected differently by a dysfunctional ecosystem. And whilst women should not always be categorised as vulnerable people due to an inherent risk of victimisation, the distinction is beneficial in this context.

Climate change has created an “inequality of suffering” for women whose lifestyles are prone to the effects of climate fluctuation.

For example, women in the slums of Mumbai are vulnerable to flooding due to their low-lying position. It is the gendered expectation that women will fix any infrastructure damage to the house and continue to provide food and water for their family. The greater exposure to risk in doing so is directly linked to the contraction of climate-induced diseases.

Similarly, women in Bangladesh have experienced increased flooding and the subsequent decimation of crop yields and infrastructure, which have affected single women more as they can only afford this cheap housing due to a lack of access to higher wages and work.

Often women are barred from the decision-making process and have less control of resources in such a male-dominated work environment. The power dynamics of these scenarios exhibit the flow-on effect of unequal social relations. The lack of access to climate solutions has a devastating effect on a community’s resilience to a changing world, especially considering that women can offer invaluable insight and propose solutions that could lead to tangible change.

In Australia, a slightly different dynamic occurs. The effects of climate change that scientists have warned politicians about for decades are finally becoming tangible. Usurping the myth that climate change just means that Earth’s temperatures will increase, in 2019 Australia has already experienced unprecedented January temperatures, Summer snow, massive dust storms in major centers, the deaths of over one million iconic fish due to water mismanagement and algae blooms, extreme flooding and bushfires tearing through some of the most ancient and pristine wilderness in the world. It’s only March.

All the while, vast areas of the country are in the grips of yet another drought and women can’t access community solutions to climate change due to the male-centric agriculture industry. This ties into a growing mental health crisis as feelings of helplessness manifest. As a stress-multiplier, climate change is exacerbating female vulnerability and women’s right to be involved in the dialogue to solve the crisis.

Moreover, post natural-disaster response highlights the uneven exposure to insecurity between women and men. The closer the world gets to exceeding the IPCC’s recommended upper limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the more often human-induced climate disasters will occur.

As British Member of Parliament Shami Chakrabarti notes, “natural disaster and climate change…take a disproportionate toll on women.” The housing vulnerability of women has been the most visible result of governance inaction in the aftermath of disasters.

A 2010 Brookings Institute and London School of Economics report concluded that government and business responses to Hurricane Katrina favoured male access to affordable housing. Needless to say, these findings illuminate a dark trend in the climate debate that is repetitively overlooked.

Women’s safety, whether it’s walking home at night or even within the home, is a constant concern. This is again reflected in the search for climate justice. The accumulative effect of unequal treatment in the post-disaster reconstruction phase, including access to food, water and medicine, is highlighted in the prioritisation of men in natural disaster relief.

Women are powerful agents of change, and they must be meaningfully involved in the climate debate. Female empowerment has become a catch phrase of 21st century feminism for a reason. Climate change isn’t occurring in a vacuum and the vulnerability women face worldwide must be recognised and acted upon for the climate movement to flourish.

Charlotte Owens is the Administrative Officer at the Sydney Environment Institute. She is currently completing her Master of International Security at the University of Sydney. She is also a policy editor for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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