June Zeitlin

UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–If climate change predictions by researchers at the University of Toronto prove to be right, low-lying Bangladesh will suffer some of the worst effects of global warming. Already, about a fifth of the country is flooded annually. As temperatures and sea levels rise, flooding may increase up to 40 percent.

For Bangladeshi women, this is particularly bad news. In some past floods–such as in April 1991 following a Category 4 cyclone–the death rate for women was five times that of men.

Several international women’s rights groups from the United States, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands have banded together at recent United Nations meetings on climate change to call attention to this and other examples that illustrate how global warming will perpetuate gender inequalities.

"Unless these realities are understood at the global, national and local level, our policies to prevent and redress climate change and natural disasters are unlikely to reach women, who are not only the most vulnerable but also key agents for survival and stability in the community," said June Zeitlin, executive director of the New York-based Women’s Environment and Development Organization, which advocates for women’s rights in global policy.

Neither the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change–the first international treaty to address global warming, which entered into force in 1994–nor the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 through legally binding measures, mentions gender.

Demanding Inclusion in Treaty

Since women’s activists consider further changes to the Kyoto treaty unlikely they are focusing on negotiations over a post-Kyoto agreement, which began at a U.N. meeting in Montreal last December. They are demanding that this treaty addresses the different ways men and women will be affected by global warming and climate policies.

With the share of women in government delegations at the annual U.N. meetings on climate change ranging between 15 percent and 30 percent in the past 11 years, women’s advocates are also pressing governments and the U.N. to fully involve women in planning and implementing environmental projects at both the international and local levels.

Many scientists attribute global warming to the release of greenhouse gases by industrial processes and the burning of fossil fuels. The White House, however, has been skeptical that global warming can be attributed to man-made causes. The Bush administration refused to sign the Kyoto treaty, saying its restrictions only on industrialized countries are unfair. Australia is the only other developed nation to not ratify Kyoto.

If the present rate of emissions is not reduced, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts worldwide temperatures will rise between 2.5 to 10.4 Fahrenheit degrees by 2100, resulting in more extreme weather conditions. This, in turn, is expected to undermine access to food and other resources, as well as increase threats to human health.

According to the panel’s 2001 assessment, climate change will hit developing countries–and the world’s poorest populations–the hardest.

Women Sensitive to Climate Change

"Women are particularly vulnerable to adverse impacts from climate change because they are disproportionately poor and lacking in access to clean water, adequate nutrition, health care and shelter," said Neil Leary, who directs a project assessing the impact of climate change for the United Nations Environment Program and the Global Change System for Analysis, Research and Training, a Washington-based environmental research organization. "The livelihoods of women are often highly dependent upon resources that are strongly influenced by climate."

Women–by tending livestock, growing vegetable gardens and cultivating subsistence crops such as rice–are responsible for between 70 percent and 80 percent of household food production in sub-Saharan Africa, 65 percent in Asia and 45 percent in Latin America.

Collecting water and firewood also often falls to women. As crop yields are reduced and resources become scarcer, women’s workloads will only become more time-consuming and burdensome, jeopardizing chances to work outside the home or attend school.

At the same time, women’s traditional knowledge and skills have helped communities cope with severe weather. During a drought in Micronesia, for instance, local women, familiar with island hydrology, found new water sources for their communities.

Amid scant data on gender and climate change, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has just given funding to Genanet–a project in Frankfurt, Germany, that promotes gender equality in environmental policies–to begin in August to analyze research and to develop gender-sensitive proposals for mitigating global warming and adapting to it.

Scientific and Technical Approach

Ulrike Rohr, director of Genanet, attributes the low participation of women’s advocates in the gatherings to an exclusively scientific and technical approach to global warming and treaty negotiations.

"Women feel like they can’t enter the discussions," she said. Although there are female experts and policymakers present at the meetings, the overall conversation has been dominated by emissions trading and new markets, without consideration for poverty or social and economic inequities, she argued.

Women’s advocates, however, are beginning to wedge themselves into U.N. environmental policymaking.

At a meeting in Montreal last December, for instance, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, which advocates for women’s rights in global policy, got involved for the first time.

The group’s Zeitlin says she was shocked to find the meeting almost exclusively concerned with science, technology and money.

"The social upheaval and social costs of climate change and natural disasters were barely discussed."

Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.

For more information:

Genanet: Gender and Climate Change:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: