“Growing crops is very hard. My whole body aches when I am working on my land. Last year, I only harvested three 50kg bags of maize. From that harvest, I have nothing left. If there is enough rain, we will have a better harvest. If we don’t get enough rain, I will not expect to harvest anything and I will have to survive on handouts.”
In 2020, Zimbabwe endured its worst drought in a decade, with nearly eight million people, roughly half of the population, suffering from food insecurity. Climate change directly contributed to the lack of rain. The situation is slightly better this year with more rain, but long-term drought means that the area where crops are grown remains smaller than in the past. This trend, coupled with rising prices, continues to push increasing numbers of people below the food poverty line.
In 2020, Rachel was 18 and living with her two-year-old daughter in Zaka District in south-west Zimbabwe. Her maize crops failed because of the lack of rain. This year, pregnant and alone – her husband works in South Africa and only returns for one week a year – she had to rely on the generosity of her husband’s parents for food and sometimes went for up to two days without eating so that she could feed her daughter.
“I feel that the baby in my stomach is hungry when I don’t eat. When you are hungry, you have stomach aches and you are also dizzy.”
Rachel’s story is just one of many that could be used to illustrate the increasing hardships that women and girls across the world are experiencing as the impacts of climate change grow. Yet, this week the Daily Telegraph reported that a “radical” review of the UK government’s international development strategy will see women and girls prioritised above global health and climate change. The change, according to the article, is at the direction of by Liz Truss, the UK foreign secretary and minister for women and equalities. Such a decision, if it is carried out, makes little sense and would cause great harm to the women and girls that Truss is proclaiming to support.
International development remains “a core priority”, insists a spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). The FCDO will publish a new international development strategy this spring, which “will set out how we deliver our climate change and health commitments, as well as restoring funding for women and girls and humanitarian work”.
If this strategy is to have any impact on the challenges facing the world, Truss needs to fully understand the severely detrimental consequences climate change is already having on the lives of women and girls. Prioritising their place in the world means properly financing technologies to reduce emissions and supporting policies that help communities adapt to, and bounce back from, extreme weather events.
“Focusing on women and girls at the expense of climate change is giving with one hand, and taking with the other,” says Helen Pankhurst, a women’s rights activist, scholar and writer with the NGO Care International.
Shilpi Srivastava from the UK’s Institute of Development Studies agrees it is impossible to support development outcomes for women and girls without sustained climate action. “We need a holistic and long-term approach to global challenges, rather than siloed thinking where one priority is replaced with another,” says Srivastava. “If climate funding is reduced…, this will only compound the poverty and inequality felt by the most marginalised women and girls.”
There is no shortage of data to back up these assertions. According to statistics published by the UN, a shocking 80 per cent of people displaced by climate change are women. As primary caregivers and providers of food and fuel in most societies, women are more vulnerable when flooding and drought occur. In one province in Indonesia, more than 70 per cent of the people who died in the 2004 tsunami were women. Similarly, Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005, predominantly affected poor African Americans, especially women. In both cases, many women and children were trapped inside their homes while men tended to be out in the open.
And climate change is a stress or a threat multiplier, exacerbating a range of existing, interacting, non-climate threats to security or health, often by increasing food or water shortages. One such existing bias is the power imbalance between men and women, says Chikondi Chapbuta, who works with Care in Malawi. “Women are worse off when it comes to poverty. They are burdened with no or low access to resources, usually hold fewer or no assets, and already face domestic violence. When climate impacts come, these vulnerabilities get exposed more.”
The cyclones Ana and Gombe that recently hit Malawi and caused immense flooding illustrate her point. “When communities were moved to temporary camps and shelters, the women had to think of their own safety and that of their children,” says Chapbuta. “The conditions were quite inhuman. Men could easily move around, but women were less mobile. When it comes to rebuilding homes, women are limited to what is around them due to the burden of taking care of children… men are easily mobile and can have more alternative livelihoods.”
Srivastava gives the example of western India, where climate change is impacting the daily lives of girls and young women who must spend more time fetching water because local wells are drying out or turning saline. “In the Indian Sundarbans, women who have lost their agricultural lands due to flooding and salination are exposing themselves to severe health risks as they turn to alternative livelihoods like crab-catching near tiger reserves to earn an income.”
Any idea that policies aimed at women and girls can be separated from climate action is delusional, says Chapbuta. “We have to be honest with ourselves: climate impacts are here, there is no way we can have meaningful impacts if we treat climate action in isolation from other development programmes.”