The climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges of this century, and one that will continue to threaten the health and wellbeing of humanity for decades to come if no action is taken now.
While Africa’s contribution to the crisis is minimal, accounting for just 2-3 per cent of global emissions, the continent bears the unfortunate distinction of being the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. These include floods, drought, deforestation, erosion and conflict fueled by the fight for dwindling resources, all of which are striking in their effects on women and girls.
On a continent where poverty rates among women and girls are highest (about 63 per cent of the world’s extremely poor women – or 244 million – live in Sub-Saharan Africa), the burden of climate change on this demographic cannot be overstated. For generations, they have had less economic, social, political, and legal power and are therefore less equipped to cope with the adverse effects of climate change.
Women and girls in rural areas are especially vulnerable. They are often tasked with the responsibility of fetching water, producing food and gathering firewood, and face the greatest challenges when these resources become scarce. Many walk an average of 6 kilometres several times a day, to fetch just 20 litres of water for household use on each trip – barely enough for one person’s daily use. Considering that the average rural African household comprises of more than five people, multiple trips are then required daily to meet basic water needs for cooking, cleaning and hygiene, eating into precious time that could be used for schooling, social and economic participation, among others.
Aside from the sheer physical labour demanded by such a reality, climate change also affects access to safe and equitable sanitation and hygiene and increases the frequency of disease outbreaks such as malaria, cholera, typhoid and dengue fever, complicating efforts to safeguard not only the health of women and girls, but their dignity too. On any given day for example, more than 300 million women worldwide are menstruating. In addition to appropriate and affordable menstrual health materials, women and girls require access to water, sanitation and hygiene to effectively manage their menstrual health. In the absence of menstrual health and hygiene, they are disempowered and denied the opportunity to reach their full potential, with a devastating impact on both their individual wellbeing and community health outcomes thanks to the home management and caregiving roles that women and girls play in society.
It’s no wonder then, that they find themselves trapped in an unending battle for survival, exacerbated by persistent social, economic and health inequalities that will only get worse if we fail to address climate change.
Time is of the essence. As the world begins to recover from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an opportunity to recoup lost gains and get ahead of the climate emergency. To do this however, we must begin to view the climate crisis not just as an abstract global challenge, but as a pressing issue of gender injustice that needs to be addressed. This requires us to reimagine our approach to the design and implementation of sustainable solutions to climate change, none of which can be truly inclusive or complete without the participation of women and girls, who make up about half of Africa’s population.
If we are to tap into their full potential, we must recognize the roles they already play as leaders within their own spheres of influence, at home, within our communities and in the workplace. Women can be – and many already are – powerful agents of change with immense potential to lead the charge towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, whose attainment would safeguard the health and wellbeing of people and planet. After all, they lead decision-making regarding resource use in the interests of their children, families and communities, and their experiences as managers within their households mean they can offer valuable leadership, insights and solutions to the challenges that affect them and in the long-term, all of us.
Putting women and girls at the centre of climate mitigation and adaptation efforts will give them a sense of ownership in joint climate action efforts. It will also allow governments, policymakers, financiers, and program implementers to tap into an often-overlooked pool of talent that is critical to understanding climate challenge through a gendered lens right from the grassroots level, therefore promoting a more inclusive and sustainable approach to this global crisis.
Climate change cannot be addressed without resolving the persistent gender injustices that have prevented women from enjoying the benefits of equal access to health, education, social, political, and economic opportunities. By empowering women to learn, to do meaningful work for equal pay, to access financial resources and participate in decision-making at all levels of leadership, we can tap into a well of talent that intimately understands what is needed to address the day-to-day challenges perpetuated by climate change, be they in water, sanitation and hygiene, clean energy, food production, disease prevention or economic participation.
What we face is a complex challenge. If we are to solve the climate crisis we can no longer afford to ignore its gendered impacts, not when it is abundantly clear that they are experienced differently depending on social, cultural and economic contexts – and certainly not when we know that women and girls are often disadvantaged by their higher exposure to risk and lower ability to adapt to (and thrive in the midst of) climate-related changes and emergencies.
The willingness and ability of women and girls to participate in creating sustainable solutions to the challenges they face presents a key opportunity for governments to involve them in crafting solutions that not only benefit them, but also benefit entire communities, nations, and ultimately the continent. Therefore, as nations work to urgently address the climate crisis, we must ensure that there is equitable space and resources for them to meaningfully participate in climate action.
Together, we can transform Africa’s women and girls from victims of climate change to formidable agents of change.
Author: Martin Muchangi, Director, WASH & NTDs, Amref Health Africa; Dr. Norah Obudho, East Africa and Global Health Integration Director, WomenLift Health