By Victoria Ponce, MARCH centre blog volunteer (MSc Public Health candidate)
We have all heard of climate change and its effects on the environment. But what do you really know about the health effects of climate change? How does climate change become not just an environmental issue, but a social one too? How does climate change create inequality? How does it affect our health, and in particular, the health of women, children and adolescents? Is climate change a gender issue, and if so, how?
This piece is the first of a three-part series on climate change and the health of women, children and adolescents, which aim is to answer the above questions and more. This first piece focuses specifically on women’s health and the role that gender plays within climate change and health discussion.
Climate change and women’s health
There are various pathways through which climate change can affect health. Direct effects of climate change include increased mortality and morbidity rates during extreme weather events such as storms, floods and heatwaves. These events, as well as other longer term climate events such as drought, can contribute to indirect health effects such as undernutrition, mental stress, increased or altered communicable disease rates and patterns, and disrupted healthcare provision.
At this point you may be thinking: why talk about gender? Well, as you might know, men and women have different roles in different societies, depending on factors such as socio-economic status, age and culture. So, looking at climate change through a gender lens helps us recognise that men and women are required to perform different tasks in different settings, using different capacities and resources, and have different ways of responding to and coping with climate change events. Recognising these differences and how both genders’ livelihoods are affected by climate change, encourages the creation of measures to reduce gender and health inequalities related to climate change.
In many areas of the world, women are more vulnerable to experiencing the effects of climate change than men. This happens partly because women represent the majority of the world’s poor, but also because in some parts of the world women’s daily chores and responsibilities revolve around natural resources that are affected by climate change. It is for this reason that it is increasingly argued that climate change has the ability to interact with societal structures such as gender, resulting in a consolidation of existing patterns of vulnerability and of poor health.
Globally, mortality due to extreme weather events is higher among women than men, and women, particularly elderly and pregnant women, are more likely to die during extreme heatwaves (though this varies by region). In the aftermath of these events, women are most likely to remain behind to care for family members, leaving them susceptible to risks resulting from extreme weather events.
In low income settings particularly, women’s multiple social roles as primary caregivers, household energy and resource managers, and food producers expose them to multiple climate change-related health risks and can leave them without the resources to mitigate those risks. In addition, limited access to financial resources and restrictions on their freedom of movement to seek healthcare and other help can leave women particularly vulnerable to climate change.
In some settings women frequently have to walk long distances to gather resources such as fuel and water. This time spent collecting resources, usually alone, exposes them to increased risks of sexual violence, as well as, limiting their time for other income-generating or educational activities, and this is only likely to increase with continued climate change.
Increases in domestic violence have also been linked to climate change. Take, for example, women in rural areas of Australia affected by drought. A 2012 study showed that increasing demands related to scarcity of water not only affected these women’s health and wellbeing, but also increased the risk of domestic violence and marital breakdowns.
Women’s roles as primary caregivers to their children and family may also leave them more vulnerable to experiencing mental stress during climate change events. Women are generally in charge of the household economy and a reduction in access to food and water as well as potential loss of household items can create strains on mental health. Moreover, women are often under social pressure and may be shamed, for example when using emergency public latrines or wearing wet clothes after an extreme weather event.
In the last few decades, climate change has been increasingly recognised as a multidimensional problem affecting human health and placed as priority in the international health agenda. However, it has only been in the 21st century that gender started being brought to the fore as a key issue within the discussions on climate change and health, both in terms of mitigation of, and adaptation to risks.
In 2007, the Global Gender and Climate Alliance was formed with the aim of integrating gender-responsiveness into climate change policy, kick-starting international efforts to mainstream gender within climate change decision-making (see their most recent report, ‘Roots for the Future’, here). In the same year, the WHO adopted a resolution to integrate gender into all levels of its work and in 2011 published a first review recognising the importance of integrating gender into health-related climate change policies and programmes. Also in 2011, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported gendered differences in climate change-related mortality, bringing gender to the fore of both climate change and health discussions.
Most recently, gender-sensitive climate policies were discussed and incorporated into the Paris Climate Change Agreement during the Paris UN Climate Conference, in 2015. This was further discussed at the Marrakech Conference, in 2016, and a decision to continue strengthening gender-sensitive climate policy as well as women’s roles within climate change mitigation was adopted. The next UN Climate Conference will take place this November in Bonn, and it is expected that progress towards climate-related gender equality will be reviewed and discussed (see here for updates).
The current evidence points in one direction – that policy on climate change and health must be gender-sensitive – and indeed we hope to be headed in that direction. To fully achieve this, it is important to recognise women as agents within the climate change discussion. The inclusion of women within climate change and health policy discussion is key for the promotion of women’s health, their capacity to adapt to climate change and empowerment.
Women are very often in unique positions of strength, as resource and energy managers and prove to be and immensurable resource in the mitigation of effects of climate change. The inclusion of women – in particular inclusion of a diverse group of women – within the climate change discussion, may simultaneously assist in limiting the effects of climate change as well as the associated health risks.
For the climate change advocates, it is encouraging that gender is increasingly being discussed in climate change forums. We hope that, together with the inclusion of women in the discussion and policy arena, we will be able to tackle climate change related inequality around the world.
Image: Global Gender and Climate Alliance (http://gender-climate.org/)