How the climate crisis disproportionately affects women
Every year Women’s Month rolls around in South Africa and the public is once again confronted by depressing statistics of gender-based violence, sexism in the workplace and everyday discrimination on the street. Many people turn a blind eye, their capacity for compassion having expired, or roll their eyes, thinking it’s another woke or performative article pushing for discrimination that no longer exists in the 21st century.
Social contexts mean people are affected by things such as the climate crisis in disproportionate ways. And in Africa, there are many concrete examples of how women especially are affected by climate change.
As part of Women’s Month, the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) hosted a webinar on Friday, 6 August, on the impact of climate change on women.
Panellist Thandile Chinyavanhu, a social and climate activist and campaigner for Greenpeace Africa, explained that not everyone responded to or was affected by climate change in the same way.
“A stimulus may be the same, but due to our social contexts, we may respond to it very differently,” she said.
Here are some ways women in Africa are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis:
Agriculture and land
Christopher Trisos, a senior researcher of the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town, was the coordinating lead author of the Africa chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) sixth assessment report. He gave Our Burning Planet insight into how climate change disproportionately affects women.
As the majority of the African workforce works in agriculture and most of African agriculture is rain-fed, this majority was vulnerable to climate hazards such as droughts and extreme heat, Trisos explained.
Not all countries in Africa have a majority female agriculture workforce, but many women in Africa rely on subsistence farming or work in the agriculture sector. Trisos emphasised that very few of these women own the land or farms that they work on.
In the GCIS webinar, Chinyavanhu agreed that land tenure was an important vulnerability for women. In many rural communities in South Africa, there was still a system of communal land ownership, which affected women’s interaction with land and land tenure.
Both Trisos and Chinyavanhu said this structural issue affected women’s livelihoods as well as access to climate resilience and adaptation assistance after climate shocks.
“The connection to land and climate is very pivotal because access to land provides a sense of resilience; it is a form of currency,” Chinyavanhu said. “When you don’t have some kind of control or ownership over that asset — especially in kinship systems that are patrilineal, where inheritance goes through the male line — you might not be able to leverage that for adapting or for receiving development assistance.”
Trisos added: “A lot of adaptation programmes are not targeted at the farm worker, they’re more targeted at the farm owner — [they] help you install irrigation or will help you with climate-resilient seeds, or help you get better access to markets. But if you’re not the title holder, then you can often not benefit as much from those adaptation projects as the person who owns the land.”
In many places where people do not have piped potable water in their homes, women and girls are the primary water collectors.
On the Ivory Coast, Trisos said, some studies reported as much as 90% of the primary water collectors were adult women, and two-thirds of female children were associated with collecting water.
When there’s a drought and people have to walk further for water or spend more time collecting water, women and girls “can bear a disproportionate impact”, said Trisos.
He added that in times of climate impacts such as drought or floods, access to basic sanitation and hygiene resources could have health knock-on effects on health.
Education and climate literacy
The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report found that climate literacy rates across 33 African countries, including South Africa, were on average 12.8% lower for women than men.
Trisos explained that the strongest drivers of climate literacy, which means you’ve heard of climate change and think it’s caused by human activity, was whether you had received a tertiary or secondary education and were not living in poverty.
Not having climate literacy made people even more vulnerable — leaving them less prepared for climate disasters and food and water shortages.
Chinyavanhu said: “There are many obstacles to girls accessing education, including period poverty, pregnancy, as well as how these disasters have now interrupted schooling for all learners.” She cited the Nids-Cram report that estimated 750,000 of South Africa’s children may have dropped out of school post-pandemic.
Climate disasters can have the same effect, pushing women into early marriage and sex work.
Trisos said patriarchal decision-making played a role in women’s access to healthcare. For example, after a climate shock, women in many African countries could be denied access to healthcare unless they are accompanied by a man.
Additionally, Chinyavanhu said, climate disasters could strain access to healthcare — at least 84 clinics were damaged in this year’s floods in KwaZulu-Natal.
Trisos said climate change affecting food security puts pregnant women and their unborn children or women still nursing children at greater risk nutritionally.
Women, he pointed out, often did the cooking in the home, often over charcoal and gas, which exposed them to a lot of particulate matter, making them more vulnerable to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
“And it can be particularly dangerous for people who have comorbidities.” HIV-infected people, for example, could be more vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution, he said.
Climate shocks — such as the KZN floods, or heat waves and droughts that result in food scarcity and economic slumps — make women vulnerable to gender-based violence.
“As is the case in our country, when we hear of spikes in gender-based violence, it’s often linked to issues of scarcity,” said Chinyavunhu. “Men are exerting violence on women because they are feeling insecure about food insecurity and the scarcity of financial resources.”
Providing solutions can help solve compassion fatigue and reach audiences that have become desensitised by depressing and seemingly hopeless situations.
“Yes, women and girls often are differentially impacted but … as part of the climate solution, more gender-inclusive approaches are essential,” said Trisos, saying there were solutions to some of the problems he had listed.
For example, women being reliant on subsistence farming meant they had a wealth of knowledge about adaptation measures as they understood the land.
Panellist Thandiwo Mchunu, who grew up in a farming community in Amahlongwa, Kwa-Zulu Natal, said she started farming at a very young age with her mother. When she returned home after Covid hit, she had started a vegetable garden and had made money from selling her produce. Now she was using her knowledge to help women in marginalised communities to produce food at a cheaper cost and make compost from food waste.
In the places where women are the primary water collectors, they have the most knowledge about water resources – where it is located, its quality and storage techniques.
“And so if you’re going to do water adaptation in a drought, usually the women have the most local knowledge.”
Chinyavunhi said women living in rural areas, who were dependent on their environment, had more of “an astute ability to detect changes in their environment, because they interact so frequently with the natural environment”.
Trisos added: “When you’re acting to support women and girls, and have more equitable education, for example, you can also see that as a climate change adaptation action.”
Panellist Princess Tsakani Nkambule, who is a green entrepreneur who owns a waste solutions company, a community builder and author, said: “As women we can propose a solution, because we know our needs. We need to ensure that as decisions are made around climate change, we are part of those decisions. Nothing should happen to us without us.” DM/OBP