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Climate change and gender equality

Takalani Netshitenzhe, External Affairs Director for Vodacom South Africa says,“This year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence was shortly after the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow Scotland. To this end, it is important to acknowledge the intersection between climate change and gender, specifically within rural communities where the gender gap is greatest. There’s no denying that rural communities are most vulnerable to climate change’s impact because weather-sensitive activities like farming provide livelihoods and food security for most of these families”.

Keeping global warming below 1.5°C

Although world leaders committed through the Paris Agreement in 2015, to ensure global temperatures remain below 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels, unfortunately, by 2020, we had already reached 1.2°C. It’s unsurprising then that countries around the world are seeing extreme adverse weather events from droughts to flooding.

To reach the Paris Agreement goals, participating countries are required to set up and follow Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that outline plans for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on the road to net-zero status. Developed countries pledged to help developing nations meet targets by providing financial and technical assistance, with South Africa receiving a USD
8.5 billion pledged to this end during COP26. 

While this contribution is exciting, the funds shortfall to meet our NDC goals is significant – the government needs an estimated USD 64 billion over the next decade to roll out its plans. Over and above climate change, South Africa has the added burden of tackling poverty, unemployment, and inequality. On our journey to net-zero status, fraught with parallel socio-economic challenges, gender inequality, especially gender-based violence is one of our most pressing issues.

Gendered link 1: Resource Scarcity 

Across many rural communities, tasks of water collection for drinking and cleaning and wood gathering for cooking and warmth fall to women, often with the help of children. Rising temperatures continue to cause droughts leaving rivers dry and fires that ravage forests, and mismanaged and uncoordinated spatial and urban development lead to deforestation forcing these women and children to travel further seeking resources.

Children can’t be children – there’s no playing after school with chores consuming their time. Worse still, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reported findings that “girls who spend more time fetching water have fewer days in school and may even drop out,” adding that the longer and more frequent journeys made by women and girls to find resources left them more vulnerable to sexual assault. Even on the home front, women and children left to fend for themselves while the men leave home to find jobs elsewhere are increasingly vulnerable to “violence and sexual exploitation,” notes the UNDP.

Gendered link 2: Gender-based Violence

As highlighted above, there’s a strong correlation between Gender Based Violence (GBV) and climate change. Drought-battered farmlands mean farmers can’t plough crops. Water scarcity during droughts means fishermen can’t fish. When these once-productive men can no longer put food on the table, some feel emasculated, frustrated, and angry. Confined to their homes, some turn to substance abuse. All of this creates a perfect storm, with anger and violence directed at wives, sons, and daughters. 

When food is scarce, vulnerable women resort to desperate measures. We’ve heard of the sex-for-fish trade in some of Africa’s coastal countries. Here, fishermen take advantage of their control over food supply by demanding sex as payment, and the women oblige to feed their children. 

The Department of Health reports over 138 000 baby deliveries by girls between the ages of 10 and 19 years, between 2020 and 2021. Some mothers and grandmothers shield perpetrators of statutory rape, fearing that the lifeline of groceries feeding a starving family will stop. When these tender girls fall pregnant, they drop out of school, and the dual burden of shame and child-rearing responsibility overshadow the need to learn. That single mother is condemned to a life of poverty, rife with exploitation. 

Seeing the rising scourge of GBV in rural communities, its impact on girls’ development and learner performance and retention, Vodacom has started deploying psychosocial support in schools to complement the government’s planned comprehensive sexuality education. The program is already supporting around 17 000 community members across six provinces. While pockets of change like this are crucial, we need far more intervention driven by private and public-sector partnerships. 

Gendered link 3: Physical Health

Water scarcity impacts hygiene, with young girls on their periods missing school because they cannot wash. Food insecurity leads to a lack of nutrition, which has a knock-on effect of stunting development in young girls and boys, affecting educational performance. 

Then there’s the growing risk of disease when climates change. For example, in many parts of Africa, rising temperatures have caused a spike in malaria cases. While Europe has long since eradicated malaria, will Africa – without equal access to financial and technical support – be able to do the same while fighting the global warming crisis?

Gendered link 4: Mental Health

Unpredictable weather heightens the incidence of fires, floods, pests, and disease, affecting crops and livestock. With no other means to provide an income and food, this is devastating for Africa’s rural farmers and farm workers. The Covid-19 pandemic brought the added burden of seismic market fluctuations – additionally, in South Africa, farm murders and stock theft are widespread. It’s little wonder that high levels of depression and suicide plague our farming community. 

Toxic masculinity within the male-dominated farming sector adds another layer of complexity. For these men, there is a stigma attached to mental healthcare. The ramifications of this mental-health crisis? Depression stemming from a loss of income and purpose is often expressed through violence, with domestic partners and children at the receiving end. Suicide leaves families headed by single, unemployed women who, as previously noted, are more inclined to fall prey to sexual violence in their desperate search for food. Mental health’s impact on our farmers is far reaching.

Big business to take its place

As former President Mbeki stated, “…islands of wealth surrounded by a sea of poverty, is unsustainable” – big business does not exist in a vacuum but is part of society riddled by poverty and climate change destruction. Therefore, multiparty stakeholder collaboration to fight climate change is key. As big business embraces environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals, these goals must be aligned with government’s NDC targets, because an ESG framework created in isolation is myopic and unsustainable. The collaborative journey between big business, civil society and government on climate change is one many companies, including Vodacom have started walking, but more still needs to be done. As we walk this journey, we must think about the intersection between climate change and gender. DM




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