By Laura Wagstaff
The consequences of climate change can manifest through a variety of indicators – melting ice coverage, rising sea levels, drought and intensifying weather patterns. These geographical changes in our environment are often easier to monitor and evaluate than the social and economic repercussions felt by those who are most affected. In developing countries in particular, women often bear the heavier burden of a changing climate, from working to revive deteriorating agricultural areas stricken by climate fluctuations to having to walk longer distances to access clean water or gather fuel wood for their family.
Around the world, women are often expected to be the primary caretaker in the family, making it more difficult to mitigate climate challenges. Although the weather changes occurring throughout planet have not been immediate, the resulting natural disasters can happen at a moment’s notice, requiring rapid response to escape from danger. This can be challenging for women who care for children or other relatives. Women are also often expected to retrieve water for their family, but droughts have been pushing sources further away, averaging a distance of six kilometers (3.7 miles) in Asia and Africa.
In addition to family and household duties, women continue to remain the backbone of the development of rural and national economies, comprising 43 percent of the world’s agricultural labor force. In some countries the agricultural workforce made up of women can rise to over 70 percent. For the women and families who base their livelihoods on agriculture or pastoralism – the raising of livestock – the threat of drought, higher CO2 levels and extreme temperatures can be disastrous for their crops, livestock and income. Economic insecurity within a community can, in turn, increase the risk of turning young girls into a financial commodity, selling them off for marriage or for work. In fact, the most recent numbers indicate that in the developing world, one- third of girls are married before the age of 18, often enforced by the family in exchange for a monetary payment.
Fortunately, we know that empowering women through energy-saving technology and economic opportunity can provide women and girls with the tools they need to improve their resilience to climate change. A number of programs have been developed to empower women that use appropriate and energy saving technologies. The company Solar Sister has developed a sustainable business model by empowering women within even the most remote communities in rural Africa. In Uganda, Nigeria and Tanzania, affordable solar lamps, mobile phone chargers and fuel-efficient stoves are now accessible through a direct sales network of women, putting income and energy access in women’s hands. ICRW’s recent qualitative assessment of the Solar Sister business model suggests that as women earn higher wages, there is a cascade of potential benefits to their social and economic well-being, translating to better educational, nutritional, health and productive outcomes for their families and communities. Furthermore, the use of solar-power operated phone chargers, stoves and lamps helps reduce indoor pollution that lead to health problems for women and their families.
In addition to supplying women with economic opportunities that will allow them to put themselves and their families in a more financially secure position when battling negative climate effects, these programs can both help improve individual health and give women the opportunity to create a cleaner and more sustainable environment. Another group, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is an initiative to promote the global adoption of clean cooking solutions, which includes both cookstoves and fuels. For the nearly three billion people every day cooking on open fires or rudimentary cookstoves, simply cooking a meal for their family results in the release of a toxic mix of health-damaging pollutants and particulates that affect their and their family’s health and wellbeing. Moreover, it is estimated that universal adoption of advanced biomass cookstoves could have an impact equivalent to reducing CO2 emissions by about 25–50 percent.
ICRW partnered with the Alliance to design a framework for measuring the social impact of clean cooking solutions, including on women’s social and economic empowerment. We found that when families use clean cooking solutions correctly and consistently, it can create a series of improvements in a household’s social and economic well-being. We also saw that the inclusion of women as active participants within the energy sector improves the expansion and use of clean energy solutions in a community.
Projects like these show clearly that action must be taken at the individual, community and national levels, and that women must be included in these efforts, if we hope to reduce the damage inflicted on our planet. As climate changes continue to unevenly impact women and girls in developing nations, innovative solutions, like those above, can be used to tailor development programs to address the specific needs of women and girls. Through smart, effective programming, that aims to meet the economic and environmental needs of women and girls, we can create communities that do not leave women behind or inadvertently place them in the eye of the storm.
For more information on ICRW’s research program and advocacy efforts around women and climate change, take a look at the clean energy issue page.