How climate change affects women differently — and what we can do about it

© Benjamin Drummond

Editor’s Note: Tuesday, Dec. 8, is “Gender Day” at the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris, with events, meetings and exhibitions focused on the role of women as leaders and innovators in addressing climate change.

When drought hits the villages of the Maasai people of northern Tanzania, many weakened cattle are cared for by women, including Martha Ntoipo and her mother.

“According to cultural upbringing, Maasai men always think they know everything, but when matters become tough, they always go to the women for advice,” said Ntoipo, executive director of the Tanzanian Pastoralist Information and Development Organization. “Women know not to take sick cattle too far, so during harsh and prolonged droughts, the cattle cared for by women have a higher survival percentage than those under the care of men.”

Because Maasai society is strongly patriarchal, this knowledge has never been formally acknowledged by village elders and local authorities — even though it’s more critical than ever as climate change alters rainfall patterns, reducing pasture growth and grazing land for the cattle that form the backbone of Maasai livelihoods and culture.

As a Conservation International (CI) Indigenous Fellow, Ntoipo hopes to change that.

“Women have so much knowledge that it is only natural and fair to appreciate it and integrate it into policies and decision-making,” said Ntoipo, who is using her one-year Indigenous Fellow grant to research and educate communities about the importance of traditional knowledge to biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation in three Maasai villages.

In rural communities around the world, women experience and respond to climate change in different ways than men — a fact often overlooked in climate policy.

Agents of change

A growing body of research has shown that the impacts of climate change — such as drought, floods, extreme weather events and reduced food and water security — frequently take more of a toll on women. Not only do women make up 70% of the world’s poor, but more than 90% of women in many African countries are engaged in agricultural work, meaning that as traditional food sources become more unpredictable and scarce due to changing climate conditions, women risk losing what are often their sole sources of food and income.

Just as women are disproportionately affected by climate impacts, they also play crucial roles in preventing climate change, at least in small ways, and even helping their communities adapt to it. For example, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), women could increase yields on their farms by up to 30% if they had the same access to resources and services as men. The ability to improve existing plots could in turn mean less forest converted to farmland, thus prevent carbon emissions associated with deforestation.

“To effectively address the challenges of climate change, it is important to not only understand the risks and vulnerabilities that women and girls face, but also recognize their roles as leaders and agents of change,” said Maria Prebble, manager of gender and conservation at CI. “Women like Ntoipo possess a profound knowledge of their environments and have the potential to adapt and build resilience to climate change risks.”

“In our work at CI, we have seen that the direct participation and decision-making of women in conservation efforts result in stronger and more equitable outcomes.”

A 2015 report by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security echoes Prebble’s findings.

“While women face unique and sometimes disproportionate burdens as a result of climate change, they are not merely victims,” the report states. “To the contrary, women are also agents with important perspectives and indigenous knowledge, which can inform and influence solutions to address climate change. In many communities around the world that are already acutely affected by climate change, women are having to adapt their lives to survive and care for their dependents.”

One of these agents of change is Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, a 2011 CI Indigenous Fellow from Chad and now co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change. On November 30, she was featured as one of Vogue’s 13 “climate warriors.” “If women come together, they can have more impact than any agreement, than any negotiations,” she told Vogue. “Because we know that the future — it’s coming from us.”

No food, no money, no sleep

Back in northern Tanzania, Ntoipo explains that climate change poses three main challenges for the women: food insecurity, livelihood loss and increased workload

“Climate change increases the already unbearable workload of Maasai women,” Ntoipo said. “On top of their daily work, they have to look after livestock weakened by drought. The loss of livestock, and thus income, also means they are not certain of having food for their families.”

But even in the face of these difficulties, Ntoipo shared that Maasai women are taking an important step to save trees, and thus help reduce greenhouse emissions: They are starting to build and use stoves that require less fuelwood.

“They know that unless they do something and find new ways of life, they are in serious trouble,” Ntoipo said.

From the field to Paris

In addition to the Indigenous Leaders Conservation Fellowship program, CI supports other efforts to work with indigenous and rural women by promoting the incorporation of gender into conservation projects through case studies and sharing knowledge with staff and partners. For example, in Colombia, CI is working closely with two indigenous women’s groups in the Amazon to build leadership skills and eliminate barriers to their participation in environmental decision-making.

And now, with all eyes on Paris during global climate talks, CI is working to ensure that gender has a voice there, urging negotiators to take gender equality and gender-responsive goals into account in the final agreement.

“A gender-responsive climate agreement would ensure that the different needs of men and women are considered in the agreement’s actions, mechanisms and activities,” Prebble said.

“The full participation of women as well as men in climate change efforts and activities is essential in building a sustainable and gender-equitable climate future.”

Cassandra Kane is a staff writer at CI.

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