by Ezra Sharpe
Climate change is warming our planet faster than Trump can point his finger at a CNN journalist and scream “fake news”. Third world nations are being impotently grasped in the fists of the climate gods, choking for air, whilst economically developed countries are merely opting to kick the can down the road. Take the British, for example, who are principally more interested in which imperious politician snorted what drug at a middle-class orgy than critical meteorological and climatic hazards, which appear to be in distant and almost alien continents. The Chinese are more tantalised by luring de facto satellite states and African nations into their jurisdiction than by the prospect of environmental restoration; the Americans see Iran as the most malignant threat to the existence of mankind, and the Russians, alongside the Canadians, are fixated on bolstering their profits through commandeering and resource exploitation in the depleting Arctic. There currently exists no profound impetus to stop the raging climate bull in its tracks which, undoubtably, is in the shadow of economic growth – contrary to what world leaders may purport to be the truth.
The impacts of climate change are somewhat universal, but are predicted to be significantly more impedimentary in poorer nations. Restated, the rich get warmer and inconvenienced, and the poor get hotter and incapacitated (Nagel p27). But gender? How does gender even vaguely relate to climate change? Doesn’t climate change affect everyone?
Climate change has very gendered impacts. In many countries, women’s devalued social position makes them increasingly vulnerable when disaster strikes. In the global south, more frequent and longer-lasting droughts are set to be one of the most menacing impacts of warming, with the IPCC reporting that there is “high confidence in surface drying”. Water conservation and collection is at the epicentre of gendered life in Africa, where this vital resource is not available in the home, or even in a community well. The burden of endeavouring for water is placed on women, who are taxingly tasked with fetching and carrying buckets of water for dozens of miles in a single day, including young children, who are forced to drop out of school to support their mothers. When drought strikes, and both water and food yields are significantly depleted, the arduous task of collecting water becomes exacerbated; increasing water competition extends potential walking distances up to 30km, meaning young children and women often have to start their trips before dawn. This expedition further imposes security issues, increasing the likelihood of being attacked by bandits or rapists belonging to local fiefdoms and clans. The already substandard social position of women, being precluded from most spheres of employment and labour, becomes underscored by this growing reliance on unpaid female manual labour, which often precipitates severe spinal injuries and pelvic deformities resulting from carrying repeated heavy weights. Various academics have identified a range of income generating activities which drought pressures thwart women from entering, such as education costs; young girls are forced to leave school, reducing the potential for employment. These economic freights force families to sell young girls as “drought brides”, where “a mother will take a 14-year old girl out of school and sell her to a man – even an old man – to generate money to give the other children food” (Nagel p37).
Sea level rise, and in turn flooding, is perhaps the most dangerous consequence of global warming, especially for densely populated coastal regions in Bangladesh, America’s east coast, southern India and the Yangtze Delta basin in China. Sea level rise represents both gradual and abrupt changes to our natural systems, including shoreline erosion, property damage and stronger storm surges. A number of these outcomes affect men and women in different ways: employment, physical health, and mental health. Bangladesh, located on the Bay of Bengal, is one of the most active and dynamic tropical cyclone regions in the world. In April 1991, “Marian”, a category 4 tropical cyclone, gained landfall with winds up to 210 km/h, displacing millions of people and leaving in its wake economic damage equivalent to $2 billion (History.com Editors). 140,000 were killed. 90% were women and children. Bangladesh is one of the few countries worldwide where male life expectancy exceeds that of women. This inequality can be attributed to cultural attitudes towards women, who are precluded from Bangladesh’s social and economic structures. At a young age, Bangladeshi females have less access to healthcare and nutrition than men, earn less than men, and many more live below the global poverty line. Less food, lower incomes and higher poverty levels all culminate to make Bangladeshi females more vulnerable to disaster when it strikes. These patriarchal notions lead to cultural expressions which prevent fully female efforts to resist and recover from disaster. For example, cultural expectations in Bangladesh prohibit women from learning how to swim (Nagel p60), and some are in ‘purdah’, which prevents women from leaving the home unaccompanied. When Bangladesh’s coastal communities inevitably flood, women are left isolated and uninformed, incapable of leaving the home or being able to swim to safety. When the storm water surged in 1991, thousands of women and children drowned.
One of the most poignant stories of the female experience of the 1991 “Marian” storm comes from a Bangladeshi mother named Begum. On the eve of the floods, she tied herself to a leveraged tree trunk (due to her inability to swim), pregnant and suffering from malnutrition. After a while, she was unable to stand, and the child in her womb stopped moving (Climate Change Adaptation Research Climate Change, Gender and Vulnerable Groups in Bangladesh Climate Change Cell Department of Environment (DoE) Ministry of Environment and Forests Component 4B, Comprehensive Disaster Management Program (CDMP) Ministry O).
And yeah, that’s about it. That concludes our first article on Gender and Climate Change – hope you enjoyed!
(all views held are my own)