Girls: This International Women's Day's For You!

Today, March 8th is International Women’s Day; the 2012 theme is, “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.”

I am so moved by the younger, awesome women and girls who are working to build a healthier, more equitable world. My work as a health scientist examines the effects of climate change, here in the US and in communities around the world.

If there is any health threat that connects everyone, it’s climate change.

Consider this: International physicians’ organizations have already joined together to sound the alarm on global warming as "the biggest global health threat of the 21st century."

Around the world:

The World Health Organization estimates that currently more than 150,000 people perish each year from the effects of a changing climate.  Climate change is increasing the global burden of disease -- in the year 2000, it was responsible for over 150,000 deaths worldwide. Of this disease burden, 88% fell upon children.  A 2009 Oxfam International study found that by 2015, the number of people affected by climate-related disasters could climb 54 percent to 375 million people each year, threatening to overwhelm humanitarian relief capacity.

Here in the US:

Worsening heat waves; declining air quality; increasing levels of allergens; changing patterns of mosquito, tick, and flea-borne disease; degradation of food and water supplies; catastrophic weather events, flooding, waterborne disease outbreaks; and large numbers of displaced persons are just some of the health threats that are already occurring and will likely to worsen within our lifetimes.

Women, as 70% of the world’s poor globally, are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. They have the least material resources to mobilize and escape the effects of flooding, of regional drought and famine, or searing heat waves that are increasing in frequency, intensity and duration as climate change continues. Women have a primary role in gathering water in many societies, and so they’re hit hard by drought and environmental changes associated with climate change: in Kenya and Somalia, the worst drought in 60 years forces them to walk far longer distances to gather family water, and decreases time spent in school for girls. The World Water Day Coalition is making efforts to address the issue.(Climate change is caused by carbon pollution, but we can reduce carbon pollution to limit its worst effects; read more here.)

Women are also the caregivers for kids, the elderly and the sick, bearing the heaviest burdens in times of emergencies, even at our own peril. But up to this point, women are left out of most conversations about adaptation.

Children are vulnerable because they are more susceptible to excessive heat, air pollution, infectious disease, and they depend on others for care, mobility, and shelter in emergencies.

Women and girls are too often the ones who suffer and die in greatest numbers in climate change-related disasters. In 2007, an estimated 1.5 million people were left homeless due to rains and flooding in Africa. Women and children comprised more than three quarters of those displaced. These gender differences are linked, unfortunately, to women’s remaining lack of social and economic rights in many places.

There’s a lot wrong with this picture. These are not girls and women’s rights issues – these are human rights issues, and human development issues.

There’s a long history of addressing human rights inequities. They matter. They are life and death issues.

Women, girls and children cannot remain in the most-vulnerable to climate change category, in any community. That has to be our collective goal, and education is the perfect tool.

This gender divide presents tremendous opportunities. When we help girls and women to become more economically empowered, to attain their educational goals, to make their own choices about family planning, they can help build communities that are more climate-resilient, with stronger water, energy, and health infrastructures, with better-educated children who know what to when emergencies happen, with better household health education ---and the list goes on and on.

Supporting women’s literacy, health care, education, and property rights will reduce their poverty and can move whole communities toward more climate change resilience.

And children can play a role in climate change adapta­tion, too. Children in some countries learn in primary school how to prepare for expected and unexpected extreme weather events; that can grow.

There are enormous benefits of boosting women’s well-being globally, helping women move out of poverty and into more productive lives. These opportunities will help move toward environmental goal of reducing demand on finite resources, too.

I count on this generation of women who are fired up by attacks on human rights against women’s empowerment. Those attacks will not stand. I count on the next generation of girls to join with us, and make even more progress toward creating healthier, more climate-secure communities in which girls, boys, women and men will all thrive.

In societies where women and men enjoy more equal rights, that inequality in loss of life due to natural disasters is lessened. As we aim to become more climate-resilient, a fabulous way to go is to give girls an educational boost whenever we can, because the more they learn, the more they become the agents of building that climate change-resilient future that I want to live in. Go, girls!