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A Women's Rights-based Approach to Climate Change: What Do Women's Human Rights have to do with Global Warming?

Posted on: Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Emergency Relief, Climate Change

Women living in poverty are the most threatened by the dangers that stem from global warming. They are also key actors in ensuring their communities' ability to cope with and adapt to climate change. When we approach climate change from the perspective of women, we see the ways that women are made vulnerable to threats associated with climate change, and that women's skills and leadership are crucial for people's survival and recovery. Therefore, defending the full range of women's human rights within the context of addressing climate change is essential both to protecting women themselves and to cultivating their capacity for leadership—on which so many lives depend.

What's Gender Got to Do with It?

Most approaches to tackling the threats of climate change focus on scientific and technological aspects of the problem, ignoring its social impact. Both the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change neglect to even mention gender. Yet developing a gender analysis—an understanding of the ways that men and women are differently affected by climate change and respond differently to its threats—is increasingly crucial to saving lives, saving resources, and quite possibly, saving the life of the planet.

What's Poverty Got to Do with It?

The effects of climate change threaten everyone, but they do not threaten all people equally. Poor people whose governments are unable or unwilling to respond to their needs are most at risk. Since 1990, more than 90 percent of "natural disasters" have occurred in poor countries. Worldwide, the majority of poor people are women.

  • People who have been displaced from their lands and forced to live in lowlands are at risk of flooding and mudslides.
  • People already denied health care, adequate food, and clean water have the least resistance to food shortages and increased incidence of disease.
  • People living in rural areas and regions neglected by government are often denied adequate warning of disasters and adequate resources for rescue and relief efforts.
  • People who are denied information, education, technology, skills, and infrastructure have the least capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change.

What Are the Effects of Global Warming and Disasters on Women?

DISASTERS—triggered by increases in extreme weather:

A tidal wave is a natural disaster until it hits the shore. Then it becomes a social issue that affects women and men differently because of the distinct social roles and expectations that they fulfill. During the 2005 Asian tsunami, many more women than men were killed, in part because:

  • men ran to safety while women stayed behind to rescue children and the elderly;
  • more men than women had been taught to swim; and
  • women stayed indoors because of social prohibitions against leaving home unaccompanied.

Yet, in the aftermath of the tsunami, women managed to extend their social networks and intensify their roles of caring for families and communities to meet the extraordinary needs of survivors. The most effective relief and recovery operations relied on and supported local women, recognizing the tremendous burden women carried; the specific threats women faced; and the skills that women possess.

MADRE Programs in Action...Pakistan

MADRE responded to the massive earthquake that struck Pakistan in October 2005 with emergency aid—including food, warm clothing, and the construction of semi-permanent shelters to enable families to survive the winter. The relief effort was undertaken in partnership with Shirkat Gah, ensuring that aid reached those most in need and that a progressive women's organization was strengthened in the process. Shirkat Gah has worked in Pakistan for more than 30 years to promote women's rights, and therefore has access to local social networks that were able to distribute aid in remote communities, which government and large relief organizations failed to reach. The organization also has an awareness of the specific challenges facing women in crisis situations, including increased violence and rape, disproportionate responsibility for injured family members, and the special needs of pregnant and nursing women.


FOOD INSECURITY—resulting from droughts and floods caused by disrupted rainfall patterns:

Because of gender discrimination, women and girls eat last and least when food is made scarce (including pregnant and nursing women, who have the greatest need for nutritious food). Yet, women plant, produce, procure, and prepare most of the world's food: women are responsible for approximately 75 percent of household food production in sub-Saharan Africa; 65 percent in Asia; and 45 percent in Latin America. In most communities, women hold the most reliable knowledge about promoting food security, preserving threatened food supplies, and ensuring their families' survival in the face of shortages.

MADRE Programs in Action...Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, Indigenous women and their families face worsening hurricanes and flooding as a result of rising sea temperatures. These conditions have destroyed food supplies in communities that are already threatened by extreme poverty. MADRE's Harvesting Hope program, in partnership with the organization Wangki Tangni, promotes food security, combats hunger, and equips women to demand their rights within their communities.


SEVERE FLOODING—as a result of rising sea levels:

Women's traditional knowledge about building wind-resistant housing, planting trees to mitigate erosion, preserving seeds, composting to improve soil quality, and conserving safe drinking water have protected generations of communities from the worst affects of flooding.

MADRE Programs in Action...Guatemala

In October 2005, Hurricane Stan caused flooding and mudslides that devastated whole communities in Guatemala. In the aftermath of the storm, MADRE worked with our sister organizations, the Bárcenas Maquila Worker's Committee and the Rigoberta Menchú Túm Organization to:

  • bring shipments of food, potable water, clothing, and medicine to affected families;
  • send a medical team to conduct health consultations, administer emergency medicine and treatments, and establish contact with local health authorities, ensuring that they could continue to deliver care after the team left; and
  • collect donations of traditional, culturally appropriate Indigenous clothing—an especially important task, since most clothing donations collected by aid organizations were inappropriate for people in rural communities, especially women.
MADRE continues to support our partners as they develop longer-term recovery plans, combining ongoing relief efforts with community development to address the poverty and marginalization of Indigenous communities.

WATER SHORTAGES—particularly in the Middle East and on the Indian subcontinent:

The time-consuming task of gathering and transporting water generally falls to women. As water becomes scarce, women's workload increases dramatically. Girls' school enrollment drops as they trek longer distances to find water. During water shortages, women's knowledge of managing and maintaining water sources becomes critical to communities' survival.

MADRE Programs in Action...Kenya

In Kenya, the women of our sister organizations are enduring a seven-year drought that is killing the livestock on which pastoralist Peoples depend. Worsening poverty has led to a sharp rise in forced child marriages. As men struggle to replace income from lost livestock, increasing numbers of them resort to trading their daughters—some as young as eight or nine—for bridal dowries. MADRE is supporting our sisters in the Umoja Uaso Women's Group, who are demanding human rights for themselves and their daughters. Rather than sending their girls into forced marriages, the Umoja women are sending their daughters to school. MADRE is supporting the Umoja primary school and helping the community transition from herding cattle to raising camels, which require less water.


WORSENING HEALTH—caused by long-term heat stress, malnutrition, and pollution:

Worldwide, the compounded effect of poverty and gender discrimination is the single gravest threat to women's health: women have the least access to health services, nutritious food, clean water, and opportunities for rest. As overall human health declines, women face the greatest risk of illness, as well as unsustainable work burdens of caring for the sick. Although they are the most threatened, women provide critical resources for maintaining health. Women's capacity to activate social networks for caregiving, their stewardship of medicinal plants, their expertise in traditional medicine, and—of course—the health of women themselves must be protected in order to defend women's human rights and enable communities to adapt to increased health threats associated with climate change.

MADRE Programs in Action...Darfur, Sudan

In Sudan, drought has decimated the grazing areas of livestock on which half of all rural nomadic people depend. The dry soil has been further depleted by wind erosion. As larger areas of land become arid, public health is threatened by the lack of food, water, and the loss of biodiversity, including medicinal plants. The single gravest threat to public health is ongoing warfare, itself fueled by competition over water and arable land.

Together with our sister organization, Zenab Women in Development, MADRE addresses the health needs of women and families in Darfur and other parts of Sudan. Zenab organizes teams of volunteer doctors, midwives, and nurses to provide free health consultations and medical treatment for families who have been displaced from their lands. Zenab's week-long health fairs are part of a comprehensive program of meeting a range of urgent physical and mental health needs generated by the crisis in Sudan.


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