Climate change is now accepted as a global crisis, but solutions have so far been inadequate and have largely ignored human and gender dimensions. This is despite the fact that marginalised and poor people, including women, are affected first and hit hardest. Recent evidence indicates that women’s views, needs and their participation has been largely excluded from the design and planning of climate change responses, including major policies. Moreover, women are often perceived primarily as victims, and not as equal and active partners in risk reduction, adaptation and mitigation strategies. Recent hazards highlight this dilemma. Women and children are fourteen times more likely to die than a man during a disaster event. In the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh which killed approximately 140,000 people, the mortality rate of women over 40 was 31%. And in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami more than 70% of the dead were women. Why, because women stayed behind to look for their children, or older relatives. Women in this region often can’t swim or climb trees, which meant that they couldn’t escape.
Women are typically more vulnerable due to their dependence on natural resources and structural inequalities in their access to economic resources, as well as social and religious stereotypes. A common example is the cultural position of women within the home: unable to participate in public conversations, women are often kept from receiving emergency warning or climate adaptation information. In particular, women in remote communities are more vulnerable due to their marginalized position and lack of access to and understanding of alternatives.
Practical Action has long recognized the centrality of gender in effective climate smart development and we have now prioritized gender alongside climate technology in all the work we do. To do this effectively we need to recognize that women and men perceive and experience the rapid impacts of natural hazards and the slower consequences of changing climates differently. We need to factor this into our engagement strategies, the way we interact and work with communities and the project development plans that guide their work. But perhaps most importantly we need to lead by example.
We have long recognized that women are all too often seen as victims of climate change and disasters. We realize that we can challenge this perception and promote the fact that they are well positioned to be agents of change through mitigation, management and adaptive activities in their households, workplaces, communities and countries if the necessary socio-cultural changes are promoted, and this means engaging men to accept this change. One of our recent studies found that community institutions such as disaster management committees were better managed, finding that institutions that lacked effective women’s participation and leadership were at least 20% less effective.
Women can be effective leaders within their communities when it comes to addressing the harmful effects of climate change. Where women can help devise early warning systems and reconstruction efforts, communities may fare better when natural hazards strike a second time. Women’s innovation have been heralded in sectors such as water, energy and reforestation – all of which are critical climate change issues. Their efforts must be incorporated into climate change policies from the outset and promoted through capacity building. But a major obstacle to this may be their participation above the household or community level. Our experience indicates women’s participation at these levels is limited, and that this probably prevents their experiences and perceptions from shaping higher levels of decision-making power. Women’s input in these arenas will be needed if gender is to figure more prominently in policy and practice, and that this policy and practice will meet the needs of 100% of the population and not just the 50% who currently dominate.