Is Climate Change a Women's Issue?

To start off, I'm certainly not the best scholar to ever happen to the cursor. I find research incredibly dull unless it has something to do with my own personhood. But, I was tasked with coming up with something for the current vector, and so researching I went. I read a lot of papers on the state of climate policy in my own country, South Africa. I now know all about COP17 and the suggested political lobbying that went into some not-so-earth-friendly agreements in the years that followed, such as the anti-poaching laws. But that's all shrouded in mystery in this scary documentary from Vice.

What I want to talk about is me. Why should the climate problem matter to a young black woman from Southern Africa with enough socio-economic problems and the daily duty of staying alive?

And it was hard for me because it required me to confront certain truths. My country relies on burning coal, exporting minerals and resources, and even selling power to other countries. The ecological, social, and political implications of this have gone past the point where this reliance can be seen as a lesser evil.

As an average person who understands that my country's economy is quite heavily reliant on fossil fuels, as I've highlighted in a prior article, I've always had this sense that climate change is just a rich people's problem; a luxury I can't afford to worry about. Besides not littering and trying my best to not consume fast fashion, there is not a lot I can do. And it's tomorrow's problem anyway. I have enough going on in my own life. I can't worry about the giant rock I'm hurtling through space on for longer than a few minutes and sign a petition.

It is through this research that I am learning how truly wrong I am. Climate change isn't a problem to be dealt with fifty years from now. Quite literally, if we don't wake up now, fifty years from now will be very different. My quality of life is at a precarious risk, and I don't even know it.

Bessie Head, in her book Maru, describes a hierarchy of suffering. A sort of caste system where those at the bottom of society get the most left out and hurt. In short, it's like a pyramid where at the very bottom was her own native people of Botswana, but lower than just being a Masarwa was being a Masarwa woman. It's quite apparent that this hierarchy still exists in modern society today. At the bottom of every marginalized group, the worst hit by famine, poverty, and crime are women.

This article is written based on my own self-interest and instinctual need to save my own skin. I rank quite low in the race/class/wage and the quality of life hierarchy, and as a lower class, lower caste woman of color in a developing country, I've opened my eyes to how truly personal this issue Is.

You might be thinking, "Come now Cynthia, enough with the theatrics. How on earth is climate change a woman's issue? And what are you raving about exactly?”

It affects how I navigate my environment. Environmental exposures, including those related to climate change, have a disproportionate effect on women's health and further exacerbate health inequities. The effects of climate change include food and water insecurity, civil conflicts, extreme weather events, and the spread of disease all of which put women at elevated risk of disease, malnutrition, sexual violence, poor mental health, lack of reproductive control, negative obstetric outcomes, and death. These factors also harm the health of communities and future generations, such as the erosion of the health care infrastructure needed to support healthy women and healthy families and studies suggesting an association between extreme temperatures and preterm birth and low weight. In my country whenever the smaller communities oppose the lack of service delivery and the lack of basic services there is what we call a strike. These are intended to be peaceful but they can turn into looting, burning, and other untold crimes.

Now imagine this. In my small town, we already have water shortage issues, and the water that the state does provide is sure to make you ill. Due to drought or low rainfall, the state cannot provide any water to certain areas. This is expected to cause unrest, which leads to a myriad of crimes, and studies that show what women have always known; places of turmoil are the most dangerous places to be as a woman. In general, during a conflict, women face heightened domestic violence, sexual intimidation, and chances of rape. All it takes is one impassioned, frustrated mob or man for a disaster to befall a woman, and under the destruction of protest, it might be too easy.

Climate change policy, without the support, voice, and inclusion of women, might not effectively solve the problem. Environmental exposures, including those related to climate change, have a disproportionate effect on women's health and further exacerbate health inequities. These factors also harm the health of communities and future generations, such as the erosion of the healthcare infrastructure needed to support healthy women and healthy families. Indeed, studies by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggest an association between extreme temperatures and preterm birth and low weight; in a grander scheme, this affects the health of mother and child.

Now, I do not know about the lobbyists and politicians in your country. But I do know that in mine, those with the greatest political influence on this – some of them with a stake in the energy and mining futures – are mostly men looking out for their investments. With this, it's frightening to think that the policymakers, those who agree on memorandums and levels of greenhouse emissions, are mostly men. What could this entail for the future of reproductive health and the socioeconomic ills propelled by a climate in crisis?

This last reason I will present is based on observations from my own life: in times of crisis, women prioritize the young and the vulnerable. It is the women who go over and above to ensure the safety of the family and its longevity. It is the women who go and fetch water at the rivers whose levels are dangerously low. It is the women who collect firewood and cook, and who protect and serve. In a socio-economic structure that may see them as second-class citizens, considering their needs last, how much worse off will they be in times of drought, flood, and famine?

With those impassioned points, I would like to argue that no, climate change is not a women's issue; it is not even a black women's issue. It is a societal issue, one which has been shelved off to be dealt with by an odd corner of governance, with the few deciding the fates of the majority. It is a societal issue that must be seen from an intersectional lens from many different voices and views. I only spoke about how this issue could affect my own identity, but take a step back and think of the disabled, the homeless, and the displaced. If we don't join the conversation while actually making an effort to hold space for others to be a part of it, we'll be stuck with a planet we don't recognize in much sooner than fifty years.


Illustration by Isabella Gotera

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