Last month a female friend and I were quietly having dinner in Brussels when the subject of periods came into the conversation. Immediately the gentleman dining alone next to us slammed down his fork and made a very loud grunt before suggesting our topic of conversation was highly inappropriate. We lowered our voices and moved on to something else.
I relay this anecdote on gender day (9 November) at the Cop26 climate conference because it is indicative of a much wider problem. We are two women in our mid-40s, for whom the menopause is lurking round the corner, and both have pre-teen daughters who are likely to start their periods any day. That we were discussing the subject was highly appropriate. Yet, after being harrumphed, we felt uncomfortable continuing.
The reluctance to talk about issues that specifically affect women has serious implications: for individuals and for the fight against climate change. Helen Pankhurst, a women’s rights activist, scholar and writer, was born and raised in Ethiopia, where she now works for NGO Care International. Her ancestors – she is the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst – led the suffragette movement to fight for votes for women. Over a 100 years later, Helen is fighting for women to have access to water, sanitation and hygiene.
And because of climate change, this fight is getting harder.
Imagine having your period without any single-use sanitary towels or tampons and no water. Global heating is causing less rainfall and more drought in Ethiopia. This means women and girls can’t easily wash themselves or the reusable rags they use as sanitary towels. Ethiopia has endured ten major droughts since 1980.
At the same time, women and girls are often responsible for fetching water for their families. Climate change is increasing the distance they must walk to get to a well, leaving them less time to go to school, study or work, and more open to violence and rape. The World Health Organisation estimates more than 40 billion work hours are already lost each year in fetching drinking water in Africa alone.
While much of the talk at Cop26 is about the big-ticket items – net-zero pledges and the promise of new technology – the areas Pankhurst calls “invisible issues, like sanitation and menstrual health” are largely ignored. “We need to be prioritising the invisible stuff, which is where women’s lives operate,” she told me over Zoom from her home in the UK.
The reason this “stuff” is not given more prominence in climate summits is not hard to fathom. While women make up just over half the population, globally only around 26 per cent of MPs are female and less than 23 per cent of ministers. All the main negotiators at Cop26 are men. Think Alok Sharma from the UK, China’s Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry from the US. The chief negotiators from Australia, the EU and Russia are all men too. It might also be worth highlighting that Xie is 71 and Kerry is 77.
And even when the women are there, men often hog the floor. One study by the UN shows that while men accounted for 51 per cent of registered government delegates in climate plenary meetings from May to June 2021, they spoke for 74 per cent of the time.
None of this is to cast blame or suggest that men aren’t important in tackling the climate emergency. But if world leaders are to sanction climate action that makes sense and is just and fair for everyone, the status quo has to end.
“Voice and representation” at all levels of decision-making is the only way the situation will change, said Pankhurst. Acknowledging that there is a gender perspective to climate policies is a final first step to ensuring issues affecting women aren’t ignored. If there is no easy solution – single-use period products are easier when there is a lack of water, but also create lots of waste – “talk about it. Think what are the ways around the problem. Don’t silence it.”
A lack of women in decision-making positions makes it harder for their needs to be met. In 2018, women made over a third more journeys by bus than men across England – a factor that did not appear to be considered when public transport budgets were cut. There is also a gender gap when it comes to research, which give policymakers an incomplete picture: men dominate decision-making positions in academia and women’s research is often undervalued and underfunded. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently instigated a taskforce to put its own house in order. Research from 2018 showed the proportion of women authors of the world’s seminal report on climate science had only increased from less than 5 per cent in 1990 to around 20 per cent in more recent reports.
It is particularly important women are involved in decisions on finance: not just about the amount of money that is agreed, but also what it goes towards and who receives it. If climate finance is to benefit women, it needs to go to women-led organisations.
Women in poverty in the Global South are most excluded from the financial system: many have no bank account or are unable to access loans and grants. Seventy per cent of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty are women. At the same time, only 10 per cent of climate finance from national or international sources flows to grassroots organisations, 1 per cent of “gender equality” funding from governments goes to women’s organisations, and 3 per cent of environmental philanthropy supports “women’s environmental activism”.
When I asked Pankhurst what her grandmother and great-grandmother would make of all this, she suggested they would be “tearing their hair out”. That girls are performing so well educationally around the world “is a slither of hope”, she said. “But we still have a hierarchy of thought, where men are seen as better than women, the old wiser than the young, the rich more knowledgeable than the poor, and the Global North more important than the Global South,” and that needs to end.
Back in Brussels, the man in the restaurant came over at the end of the meal to apologise with the excuse he was “having a bad day”. Try having your period every month for 30 to 40 years, with less and less water every year. As Jennifer Lopez sings, “let’s get loud” on gender day at Cop26.