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By: Salina Sanou and Diana Warira .

Over the past decade, Africa has increasingly borne the brunt of climate change as witnessed by the loss of life, destruction of property and livelihoods, disease outbreaks, poor health outcomes, among other challenges. For instance, cyclones Idai and Kenneth which devastated Southern Africa between March and April 2019, left thousands homeless, others dead, and a crippling humanitarian crisis in their trail. Tens of thousands across the continent have also been affected by drought, flooding, and other tragedies linked to the adverse effects of climate change.

Evidently, conversations on addressing climate change are urgent if countries are to recover from the socio-economic impacts of disasters linked to climate change, in addition to the prolonged impacts that don’t always make the news. To this end, the impact of climate change on women was one of the key issues up for discussion at the recently concluded Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development which took place in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, 24-28 February 2020. Ms. Salina Sanou, the Head of Programs, Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) led the discussions as stakeholders who included civil society, government officials, development agencies and the private sector, explored how to address the vulnerabilities women face due to climate change.

Women’s Vulnerabilities
Women, children and persons living with disabilities are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Women are more likely to experience the adverse effects of climate change than men, because women constitute most of the world’s poor and are often directly dependent on threatened natural resources as their primary source of food and income. Climate change and environmental research over the years has shown that the poor are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This is more so because climate change leads to the destruction of ecosystems which support livelihood opportunities such as farming, as well as preventing access to clean and safe water, in addition to exacerbating food insecurity. Further, climate change-related food insecurity affects women differently because of their nutritional needs during pregnancy, childbirth and lactation.

Women also face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that include: harmful stereotypes and traditional practices; social, economic and political barriers that limit their capacity to adapt to climate change impacts; limited or inequitable access to financial assets and services, education opportunities, land ownership, access to decision-making processes; as well as less autonomy hence making them more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In most African societies, male-dominated social structures often govern land ownership, making it difficult for women to access fertile land and agricultural extension services. In turn, this limits women’s ability to practice climate-smart agriculture and increases their vulnerability to climate change. In addition, the unequitable distribution of domestic work and caregiving can also impede women’s adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change, by limiting the time available for other activities. The inequality created by patriarchal structures and systemic barriers in societies, as well as the different views, experiences and needs of men and women, contribute to an overall higher risk of women experiencing harmful effects of climate change and their inability to participate in climate action.

Climate change also impacts women’s health negatively. For instance, poor air quality caused by emissions from fossil fuel combustion contributes to millions of deaths and health complications each year. Indoor and outdoor air pollution combined cause an estimated 7 million deaths per year. Women are at an especially higher risk of disease and death, owing to their higher exposure to indoor air pollution from the use inefficient and dirty fuels such as wood or dung for cooking and heating in homes. The lack of viable fuel alternatives contributes to a public health crisis and to climate change.

Climate change can limit women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services. For example, climate change-related migration can lead to reduced access to these services. Extreme weather events, which are increasing in frequency and intensity because of climate change, can destroy essential healthcare infrastructure and otherwise contribute to a decrease in the quality, availability and accessibility of sexual and reproductive health services.

Women are also at a higher risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) during and after extreme weather events. Displacement caused by disasters can push survivors into evacuation centres where women, including relief workers, may feel unsafe, be subjected to sexual and gender-based violence, harassment and discrimination, and/or have limited access to reproductive and other health services. In the aftermath of disasters, law enforcement agencies may also be less effective due to strained resources, and women who are victims of SGBV may not report violence due to lack of access and/or the associated stigma.

Further, climate change directly and indirectly affects women’s employment opportunities in a number of sectors. Over 60 per cent of all women at work in sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in unpaid or poorly paid, time- and labour-intensive agricultural work. Consequently, climate change can lead to the loss of livelihoods, reduction in incomes, or deterioration of working conditions in agriculture and related sectors, which collectively have negative implications for women’s economic status and wellbeing. In addition, infrastructural impacts of climate change can also decrease the number of jobs available in some sectors. After disasters, women generally have more difficulty finding work than men, as most of the opportunities available may be in male-dominated sectors such as construction. As a result, women in areas affected by climate change often need to strengthen their skills, and in some cases learn new ones in order to access work in different sectors.

Addressing Vulnerabilities
For us to address the vulnerabilities women encounter in the face of climate change, action is needed to address food insecurity and access to land. Government policies and laws therefore need to address cultural practices that deny women rights to land ownership. Women also need access to decision-making processes to ensure their voices are heard and they are active participants in climate action decision-making. Investments in the health of women is critical as well, because without positive health outcomes, including but not limited to sexual and reproductive health and rights, women cannot be productive economically neither can they play an active role in climate action. Governments and non-state actors also need to collaborate to eliminate SGBV and discrimination, to ensure the wellbeing of women in our societies. This should include punitive laws to deal with the perpetrators of SGBV. Further, women need access to livelihoods and decent work to ensure they can cater to their needs and those of their families. In most African societies, women are the primary caregivers for their families and without access to gainful livelihood opportunities, their abilities are significantly diminished and their families suffer.

While women are not the only people who suffer the adverse effects of climate change, they suffer the most, and we need to do more to cushion them from these vulnerabilities.

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