If you think Covid-19 made women’s lives hard, climate change will make it worse

Pupils from 20 schools protest about the climate crisis outside Parliament in Cape Town in 2019. (Photo: Tessa Knight)

Over the last few years, the impact of the climate crisis has become increasingly visible. Extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and fires have become more common, with detrimental effects on communities and ecosystems across the world. South Africa is planning for this – to adapt, respond, and mitigate the impact – but a new report from the African Climate Reality Project shows its planning is forgetting something very important. Gender.

2020 – a year we won’t forget

Few will be able to forget the day we first heard the word ‘coronavirus’ or the night we had our first family meeting with the President and he told us we’d be going into a lockdown. A National Disaster was declared, and regulations and emergency response measures were developed at lightning speed. For the past nine months, it has been hard to think of anything else.

But, with Covid-19 at the forefront of our minds some of us may have forgotten that in the first half of 2020, scientists had already begun predicting that 2020 had a 75 percent chance of being recorded as the hottest year ever measured with instruments since records began, breaking the record set in 2016. By December it was tied with 2016, the hottest year ever recorded.

As glowing reports of Venice’s clean canals and fresh air blew across many cities for the first time in ages, we may also have forgotten that South Africa is a significant contributor to climate change – the 14th largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world and the worst on the African continent.

Changing climatic conditions affect temperatures, sea levels, agricultural production, rainfall and water availability and will have a huge impact on every species on the planet. Climate change will certainly result in future declarations of National Disaster in South Africa, and it is important that we don’t forget that disasters don’t affect everyone equally.

What Covid-19 (hopefully) taught us

Shortly after the 2020 lockdown was announced, schools and Early Childhood Development Centres closed. It’s probably safe to say that mothers everywhere felt a sense of foreboding that extended beyond the risk of the pandemic.

Research shows that although many women in South Africa work, their work is perceived as less important and secondary to their duties as carers in their homes. The recent General Household Survey indicates that children are far more likely to live with just their mothers (42%) than just their fathers (4%). Even where two parents are at home, women in heterosexual partnerships continue to do more than double the care and domestic labour according to our last time use survey.

Covid-19 exacerbated this gender gap, as reports from around the globe have shown. Working mothers were expected to continue their day job from home and take up the duties of homeschooling. Mothers who were informal workers – street vendors, domestic workers, and waste pickers – were unable to work due to the lockdown restrictions and research shows that Covid-19 resulted in huge job losses for women in this sector. Where women lost their jobs in Covid-19, it was harder for them to get them back than for their male partners, despite less strict regulations. As the Daily Maverick reported, many women went hungry so that their children would have something to eat.

Covid-19 has shown that trying to respond to a crisis in a ‘gender neutral’ way is never neutral. Without gender-inclusive planning and emergency response measures, gender inequalities are inevitably worsened by crises.

The Constitution provides for the right to health, and it also provides the right to a clean and healthy environment that isn’t harmful to our health or wellbeing, and the right to have the environment protected. South Africa has passed several laws and policies to bring this commitment to fruition. 

Yet, South Africa is, as a country, planning for climate change. In August 2020 the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy was approved for implementation and in December this year the President announced the representatives on our National Climate Change Coordinating Commission, which he will Chair. South Africa also has a draft climate change bill. However, although we’ve signed on to a raft of global agreements (including the Paris agreement), our efforts at meeting our targets to keep global warming below 2°C are highly insufficient.

In addition, 2020 research that I helped to produce with Action24’s African Climate Reality Project shows that in this planning the government is (almost always) forgetting to take gender into account despite the evidence that climate change has differentiated impacts on women and men.

Planning to respond to climate change, but forgetting to include gender

“I found the fact that South Africa’s law and policy framework around climate change is not gender responsive particularly revealing. Women, especially poor women, are one of the most vulnerable groups to climate change effects, yet South Africa’s policies and laws are largely gender blind. They do not consider the differentiated vulnerability between men and women to the effects of climate change. The lack of a gender responsive approach will only serve to reinforce existing inequalities” says Amy Gilliam, Branch Manager at the African Climate Reality Project.

The UNFCCC reports that “differentiation is widely considered to be based on pervasive historical and existing inequalities and multidimensional social factors rather than biological sex.” Women, especially poor women, are one of the groups most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and least likely to have the resources to cope with them. Climate change increases the likelihood of natural disasters and women are 14 times as likely as men to die during a disaster and to be negatively affected in the aftermath by stress-related or health issues, gender-based violence, depression, and loss of livelihoods (C40, 2019). 

For instance, when Cyclone Idai swept across Southern African countries (Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique) in 2019, women’s access to health was negatively affected, and their risk of exploitation and sexual violence was increased. This has ramifications for this generation, but also future generations. For example, when crops fail, families often pull their children out of school, and it is frequently girl children who are pulled out first. As climate change increases the chances of water-borne and other illnesses, women in rural areas will have to travel further for water collection, and where this is not possible will have an increased care burden due to family illness.

Yet the African Climate Reality Project research shows that the law and policy framework to respond to climate change at the national level is for the most part not gender inclusive – including key national documents. Although the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy includes gender sensitivity as a guiding principle, it doesn’t specify the mechanisms for this. The Draft Climate Change Bill (last published in June 2018) does not mention gender, women, or gender-differential vulnerability. South Africa’s 2009 Climate Change Response White Paper commits South Africa to taking into account the needs and specific issues facing vulnerable groups including women, and positively does not try to homogenize this grouping. It also specifies the importance of women’s inclusion and participation in drafting climate change strategies and responses.

The report also looked at provincial, district and metro municipality climate change strategies in four provinces – Gauteng, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. Sadly, the policies and plans in these provinces showed little effort to undertake a gender analysis, often referring simply to vulnerable groups (sometimes without defining these). 

What needs to change if we want a better response to climate change?

The report makes clear that as it stands now, South Africa’s response to climate change is at risk of exacerbating existing inequalities by not taking gender into account. But all is not yet lost says Gilliam.

“Our hope is for the report to influence existing policies and development of new policies so that they are more gender responsive, and the processes more gender-inclusive.  In collaboration with all those involved, we plan to officially launch the report in 2021 and share it as widely as possible amongst community based organisations, civil society groups, provincial legislatures, and the public.”

Hearing the voices of women seems more possible with the announcement of the National Climate Change Coordinating Commission in December. The establishment of the Commission arose from the Presidential Jobs Summit held two years ago, in October 2018. According to the Presidential statement “under the Commission’s Terms of Reference it will advise on and facilitate a common understanding of a just transition, cognisant of the socio-economic, environmental, and technological implications of climate change. This covers adaptation, mitigation, as well as means of implementation.”

The Principles for Deep Just Transitions in the Climate Justice Charter developed this year provide a helpful starting point for defining a just transition. These emphasise climate justice, social justice, eco-centric living, participatory democracy, specialised ownership, international solidarity, decoloniality, and intergenerational justice. At the core of these principles is the commitment that “every community, village, town, city and workplace has to advance the deep just transition to ensure socio-ecological transformation.” 

“To develop more effective gender inclusive responses to climate change, women must be at the centre of policy making processes” says Gilliam. “I am pleased to see that the new Climate Change Commission is equally split between male and female representatives. It is also encouraging to see a selection of strong female advocates for climate change such as Ms Makoma Lekalakala, Ms Melissa Fourie, and even youth activist, Ms Ayakha Melithafa.”

This Commission has its work cut out for it and the responsibility to make sure that a just transition includes gender justice belongs to all of us. MC


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