Women are feeling the brunt of climate change. And COVID has only made it worse.
The United Nations recently said that COVID “could set women’s equality back 25 years.” New global data from UN Women suggests that women are doing significantly more domestic chores and family care, because of the impact of the pandemic.
“Women stand at the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, as health care workers, caregivers, innovators, community organisers and as some of the most exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the pandemic,” the UN press said in a press release about International Women’s Day. “The crisis has highlighted both the centrality of their contributions and the disproportionate burdens that women carry.”
This is reiterated by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia. “Employment and education opportunities could be lost, and women may suffer from poorer mental and physical health,” Bhatia says.
Even before the pandemic, it was estimated women were doing about three quarters of the 16 billion hours of unpaid work that are done each day around the world. This means that for every one hour of unpaid work done by men, three hours was done by women. That figure has increased significantly in the past year. “If it was more than three times as much as men before the pandemic, I assure you that number has at least doubled,” says Bhatia.
The Changing Climate
However, if COVID wasn’t enough, climate extremes in 2020 have been abundant with unprecedented wildfires, sea ice decline, hurricanes and record high temperatures. The 2016 landmark Paris Agreement stipulated that earth temperatures should stay within 1.5-2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels to prevent natural disasters and food insecurity. But, a United Nations report warned recent reduction targets would result in less than a 1% decline by 2030. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the situation as “a red alert for our planet.” The Agreement made specific provision for the empowerment of women, recognising that they are disproportionately impacted.
UN figures indicate that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women, with girls often dropping out of school to help their families. Most vulnerable, are those in rural areas often trapped in unpaid, poor quality work. For these women, flooding and droughts affect roles as primary caregivers and providers of food and fuel.
For example, in central Africa, where up to 90% of Lake Chad has disappeared, millions of nomadic, indigenous women have to walk much further to collect water. “In the dry season, men go to the towns… leaving women to look after the community,” explains Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Women and People of Chad (AFPAT), to the BBC.
China’s temperature has already climbed 1 degree Celsius higher than the rest of the world.
Women In Agriculture
Women in China make up 70% of the agricultural workforce and have less access to income, land, technology, loans, and employment options outside of farm work than their male peers. This means that when climate change wreaks havoc, women will be less able to navigate its challenges. A recent UN Women China survey indicated that 80% of female participants were unfamiliar with disaster emergency plans. Unsurprisingly, the data also show that women around the world are more likely to die when natural disasters strike than men.
Agriculture remains the most important source of work in South Asia. 79% of women work in agriculture and they do more than 60% of the work. Yet, two out of three women have no water supply at home and walk miles to collect water and fuel daily. A 2015 Time Use Survey showed that Indian women spent 51% of their time in unpaid work. Dependent on rain-fed agriculture, these women have been the “shock absorbers” when droughts have hot for the past six years. Estimates reveal that the total value of time spent on unpaid care and domestic work by women in India is equivalent to 39% of GDP.
Women Are the Solution to Climate Change
The UN has stressed the need for gender to be factored into the impacts of climate change. But less than 30% of national and global climate negotiating bodies are female. This, in spite of evidence that women’s leadership in political decision-making processes improves them. For example, drinking water projects in Indian areas with women-led councils are 62% higher than in those with men-led councils. “Women are often not involved in the decisions made about the responses to climate change, so the money ends up going to the men rather than the women,” environmental scientist Diana Liverman explained in a BBC interview. “Women are half the world. It’s important they participate in all major decisions.”
This is true. Women shouldn’t be portrayed as victims of climate change. They need to be instrumental in the solutions as educators, decision-makers and advocates. Especially in rural areas, unpaid female workers need to become active citizens with transferable skills, and disaster preparedness knowledge. But how does this happen?
It would seem that several governments and organisations are working towards protecting and empowering rural female workers. India’s Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005 is the first national law to have recognized women’s unpaid work burden, making this work “visible” and paid. Since the 2015 UN Women intervention in Uttar Pradesh, rural women’s participation in waged employment has increased from 3% to 21%. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) guarantees 100 days of employment a year, at minimum wages. In the 12 years of this programme, women have begun earning equal wages to men. Plus, they have improved their assets, education, food security, and social protection. Equally, the UK government set aside £150m for eco-friendly forest projects across Africa, Asia and Latin America. The goal is to promote sustainable land use practices that will employ women. Plus, the UK is using its presidency of this year’s UN climate summit, Cop26, to focus on supporting the Gender Action Plan.
Whilst women’s insights and leadership are invaluable to ensure stronger outcomes on climate change, at a grassroots level, effective social policies are equally important. These enhance female economic security, and life options. Family and child allowances, pensions, healthcare, and sanitation are all powerful tools to address women’s inequality in unpaid care and domestic work. Moreover, to realise the UN’s ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, which all countries adopted as a roadmap to a more equitable and sustainable world by 2030, we must financially recognize the huge economic contribution of the world’s most vulnerable women. The only way to do this is through the reduction and redistribution of their unpaid rural work.