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Our Warming World on Her Shoulders

With all the political, economic, and cultural barriers women face, how can we expect them to save us from climate change?

Nazario Graziano, colagene.com

When farmers returned to war-torn northern Uganda in 2008, they had to figure out how to begin again. A local cotton gin backed by social entrepreneurs from abroad offered some hope. The Gulu Agricultural Development Company (GADC) would train the returning farmers to grow cotton organically and sustainably, then connect the farmers to international markets. GADC knew there would be challenges. The land was in a pitiable state, and the returnees had been subsistence farmers before the war, with little experience in cotton or other cash crops.

But GADC wasn’t prepared for its biggest problem. Three years into the program, the company noticed that yields from female farmers had dropped without explanation. Many of the women stopped attending trainings. Site visits revealed poorly managed farmland, and alarmed program administrators launched an inquiry.

Their finding: Domestic violence was undermining the initiative.

GADC had already been aware that legally sanctioned sexism was an issue in Uganda. Despite legal formalities to the contrary, married women cannot realistically own land. Many police officers impose a de facto ban on female travel without a father’s or husband’s consent. GADC was dealing with these problems as they arose. For example, after learning that husbands were reaping the crops their wives had sown and raised, then selling them outside of the GADC program, the company hired trucks to pick up the produce directly from the women’s farms. GADC also bought bicycles for women, so they could haul their own crops without relying on their husbands. But domestic abuse seemed like a much bigger problem. A cotton cooperative can’t fix centuries of entrenched subordination of women.

This isn’t just an anecdote about domestic violence in Uganda. Across the world, especially in the environmental movement, advocates are turning to women’s empowerment as a cure-all. Women control the levers of production in the developing world; they’re also typically more invested in families and the future than are men. Empower women to solve a problem, stand back, and watch them work their magic, the argument goes. But with all the social, legal, psychological, economic, political, and cultural barriers they face, is it reasonable to expect women to solve our environmental problems?

The Case for Female Solutions

The ideal of enlisting billions of female change-makers in the fight to save the environment is grounded in a series of undisputed facts and entirely reasonable inferences.

Women are the primary economic drivers across large swaths of the globe. They produce half of the food consumed worldwide. In sub-Saharan Africa, it’s up to 80 percent. In much of the developing world, women provide energy for the home, spending up to 20 hours per week collecting wood, dung, or other fuels.

There is also some data in the academic literature to suggest that women think more about the future and the welfare of children than men do. U.S. public health spending spiked and infant mortality dropped immediately after women got the vote in 1920. When India instituted female quotas on local government councils to increase the number of women serving on them, the country saw more investment in clean drinking water. India also saw an increase in literacy in districts where women were in charge.

Women have every reason to want to solve climate change; they’re suffering most of the consequences. In sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls spend 40 billion hours annually collecting water, the approximate number of hours the entire population of France works in a year. As climate change increases drought frequency and intensity, those hours are getting longer. Relatedly, a 2006 study showed that extreme weather is deadlier for women than for men in areas where women suffer discrimination. In some cases, the evidence suggests women have died trying to save their children. Research from the University of Virginia shows that drought increases dowry killings, the murder of a wife to enable a man to remarry and collect a second dowry payment. The female-specific dangers of climate change extend to the developed world as well. Following Hurricane Katrina, American crime-victims’ groups saw a spike in reports of rape as women evacuees of the storm were targeted; a little-publicized online database maintained by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault registered 42 reports in six weeks.

Many advocates have added these factors together and concluded that empowering women is the key to fixing our ailing planet. Christiana Figueres, former chief of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, called women “our strongest key agent of adaptation” to global warming. The U.S. Agency for International Development recently wrote, “Through our climate change work, we can help position women as decision-makers in their communities [and] advocates for conservation and land use rights.”

Context Is Key

The case for women solving the world’s environmental problems, however, lacks important context. As GADC learned in northern Uganda, attempting to empower women in one sphere (economic) can be fruitless without addressing their marginalization in others.

Start with political disempowerment. Just 23 percent of parliamentary representatives worldwide are women, a proportion that is increasing, but not quickly. (The United States is slightly below average on this score: 19 percent of Congress is female.) In 37 countries, women make up less than 10 percent of representatives in the lower house of parliament.

Women in many parts of the world face medieval-style legal discrimination. African countries are still struggling with the widespread view that rape should go unpunished if the perpetrator marries his victim. Egyptian police regularly subject women in custody to “virginity tests.” In parts of Asia, women cannot inherit property. In others, they can’t even go to school. Even countries that pride themselves on improving women’s rights, like the United States, still face significant challenges.

Cultural barriers to female empowerment are just as powerful as legal and economic obstacles and are often harder to eradicate. In our country, where Donald Trump used his campaign speeches to reduce Hillary Clinton’s qualifications for the presidency to “the woman’s card,” the data show he spoke to a receptively biased audience. Less than 50 percent of American men hope the country will elect a female president in their lifetimes. Among Republican and independent women, the proportion is about the same. In nearly every country that participated in a Pew Research poll published in 2013, a majority of Muslims said that a woman should always obey her husband. In Latin America, only 35 percent of people believe that women are treated with respect and dignity.

This is the reality for women around the world, and efforts to deploy them as environmental change agents have run into it headlong. Consider, for example, the indigenous women’s group dedicated to fighting child marriage in the northern Guatemalan community of Santa Maria Xalapan. Almost 40 percent of Mayan females are married before the age of 18 in Guatemala, sometimes after being kidnapped and spirited away from their families. As the indigenous rights group was beginning to make progress against the problem, they faced a sudden environmental disaster when a mining company launched a project in the region, contaminating or diverting much of the potable water. Today, the women’s group is torn between fighting for freshwater and fighting for control over their own bodies. It is unreasonable to expect them to battle on two fronts, especially as wealthy interests harass and intimidate those who oppose them.

For an equally troubling example, look to Bangladesh. The report “Marry Before Your House Is Swept Away tells the stories of girls as young as 11 forced into marriage because floods and other environmental disasters rendered their families too poor to support them. “Whatever land my father had and the house he had went under the water in the river erosion, and that’s why my parents decided to get me married,” said Sultana M., who was forced into marriage at age 14 and pregnant by 16.

These girls have been raped—surely the only appropriate label for sex with an 11- or 14-year-old girl, even if she is the rapist’s wife—and forced to bear children at inexcusably young ages. And disempowered as they are—unsafe, subordinated, lacking control of their own bodies—we also expect them to serve on the front lines of climate action. How can we tell these young women to fight to save humanity from climate change when they still lack the most basic human rights?

“If a rural African woman has to walk a long distance in a path that’s not clear, they are vulnerable to attacks by predators who want to take advantage of them, who want to take advantage of their bodies,” says Nachilala Nkombo, interim director for the ONE campaign in Africa. “If they stay at home and do nothing, their kids go hungry and unfed. If they take the extra mile, it means they also put themselves at risk."

There is also an important philosophical problem with the concept of empowering women so that they can save the rest of the world from climate change: It robs women of their own intrinsic value and treats them as pawns.

Partners, Not Saviors

“We must stop talking about women as a tool to get a better life for everyone, but about women as human beings,” argues Carla Lopez, executive director of the Nicaragua-based Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres.

Advocates like Lopez argue that the better approach is to use the fight against climate change as a tool to empower and improve the lives of women. Her organization raises funds for organizations and movements that defend gender equality and equity, with an ecological conscience. It’s an approach shared by the Green Climate Fund. Established in 2010 by the United Nations, the GCF aims to funnel $100 billion by 2020 from donor nations to climate change adaptation and mitigation projects around the world. On its face, it has nothing to do with gender empowerment. But after careful and clever prodding, advocates have successfully integrated gender issues into the fund’s DNA. The organization’s founding documents mandate a “gender sensitive” approach.

“It means conceiving of projects very differently, accounting for how well they’re doing in a different way, and making sure you’re doing projects that have participation of women and women as beneficiaries,” says Liane Schalatek, associate director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America, who pressed for this approach.

The GCF can already boast some impressive gender victories. Large banks, such as Deutsche Bank and HSBC, that want to work as intermediaries, receiving GCF money and disbursing it for climate change projects, must first show the fund that they have a corporate gender policy—something that many large banks haven’t yet adopted.

The GCF is also requiring grantees to collect gender-specific data. It will not be enough for a recipient of funds to show that it improved energy access in the developing world—it must also break down the numbers of men and women who benefited.

Another GCF opportunity is to create national funds to improve women’s access to capital. If women are essentially barred from land ownership, as in Uganda, they’ll find it extremely difficult to secure necessary loans to pursue economic development. Dedicated female funds can help remedy this injustice.

Smaller projects are already widespread. In the Marshall Islands, the organization Island Eco provided training to bring women into the male-dominated field of building and installing renewable energy systems. The female-owned and -operated Windfang eG cooperative runs windmills and solar farms in Germany. These programs are proliferating around the world, educating and training women to bring them into the renewable energy economy.

This is how female empowerment will interact with the movement to save our climate, a message echoed at the recent Women’s March on Washington, which included climate action as one of its unity principles. Women must be brought in as partners, more as beneficiaries than as saviors or tools to help others.

This is also the approach that will work for vulnerable female cotton farmers in Uganda. GADC, the cotton cooperative that discovered how domestic violence was undermining production, is working on a program to reduce spousal abuse among its workers. It will be a long, slow process. Along the way, the co-op’s members—male and female—will help address environmental problems through the responsible and sustainable agricultural production the program envisioned. But more important, attention to an environmental problem will contribute, one hopes, to these Ugandan women’s well-being. It will chip away at the systematic subordination they face in their homes, on our warming planet.

“The wind was incredibly strong,” recalled Bhokul, a Bangladeshi woman who watched her home destroyed in a storm. “The trees started breaking and falling on top of the houses. The children started to scream. After that, the water came flowing into the house. When the water came in, my soul ran away from me.”

The stakes could not be higher.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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