Climate change is nothing new. Everyone has heard about how it increases the severity of natural disasters and how the ice caps are melting. Everyone has watched Blue Planet and been told to recycle plastics. But what about climate change as a feminist issue?
Despite climate change often being in the media, I had never considered a link between climate change and gender before it came up in my climate change module at university. In fact, when typing in “climate change” to Google, most of the findings refer to animals and nature. There are mentions of natural disasters costing lives, but not about how women are more vulnerable. There is no denying that the effects of climate change on the ecosystem is and will be catastrophic, but why are women’s rights being put on the back burner?
Women are more vulnerable to climate change
Climate change and poverty are inextricably linked. Poorer communities, particularly in rural areas, are highly dependent on natural resources, such as wood for cooking and the land for income and food. Additionally, poorer communities and countries lack the infrastructure, such as water systems and housing, to remain resilient in the face of climate change. 70% of people in poverty are women, meaning women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men. Women in developing countries are usually responsible for collecting fuel, food and water. Climate change affects the accessibility of these resources. For example, drought means women have to travel greater distances to collect water. This increases their vulnerability by increasing the risk of violence, such as rape and trafficking.
This also reduces the amount of time women have to pursue outside sources of income and education, increasing their dependence on men. Droughts and floods also have significant impacts on crop yield. With a reduced yield, there is less food to go around, meaning women have to sacrifice food to instead feed their children and husband. This even causes women to sell their bodies for food in an unequal negotiation of power.
The prevalence of child marriage is another issue that is exacerbated due to climate change. With a decrease in natural resources, families can no longer afford to feed their children. Marrying daughters off as early as possible seems like a good solution to avoid having to support and feed them, resulting in child marriage. However, husbands are not necessarily richer, and girls often end up giving up their education to fulfil their role as a domestic housewife. This includes roles such as caring for children and elders, collecting fuel and water and looking after the home. This subservient role prevents women and girls from continuing with education and entering the workplace, leaving them dependent on men.
Climate change has the potential to cause civil wars and fighting over resources. Rising sea levels eliminates people’s livelihoods and leaves much land uninhabitable. Drought also removes livelihoods and causes food shortages. This forces mass population movements, as people migrate in search of resources. This fighting over resources is what will lead to civil, transnational and international wars, which women are disproportionately affected by. For example, women are more vulnerable to gender-based crimes such as trafficking, sexual violence, child marriage and being used as both offensive and defensive weapons of war. Additionally, if children and husbands are killed in the violence, women are left without support and a source of income. Women are more vulnerable to the effects of war, a direct impact of climate change.
Social norms make women more vulnerable to climate change. Women have to travel to collect water because they are women. Women get raped and trafficked because they are women. Patriarchal standards enforce that women are only good for domestic tasks and pleasing men sexually. Women’s vulnerability due to their prescribed gender roles shows how women’s lives are connected to contemporary environmental problems. Therefore, environmental problems are a feminist issue. This should not be excluded from mainstream climate change discourse.
Eco-feminism, a term coined by Françoise d’Eaubonne, asserts that both women and nature are unjustly dominated by patriarchal power. Socialised gender norms are based on biological assertions about the gender binary of men versus women. We’ve all heard of the term “mother earth”, which demonstrates the close association of women with nature. For example, women are associated with nature with regards to the myth of the moon controlling the menstrual cycle. Women are presented as biologically more caring than men, which is actually just a way to keep women in their ‘place’ (the home) performing their role (housewife and primary care giver). Both women and nature are presented as chaotic and irrational, in comparison to men who are rational and ordered. I think most people, not exclusively women, would disagree with this. Is Trump more rational than Angela Merkel? Are men, who tend to engage with physical fights more than women, more rational? I’m going to have to go with no. Nevertheless, these characteristics provide supposed justification for patriarchal and economic domination over, and exploitation of, both women and the environment. This justification is not acceptable. Women deserve to hold positions of power and be treated with respect as rational human beings. The environment deserves far more attention from governments worldwide to tackle the climate disaster. This will help to reduce the vulnerabilities of women in the face of climate change.
For eco-feminists, women’s liberation is intertwined with environmental liberation. We cannot achieve either within our hierarchical structure of society and thinking. Dichotomies such as women versus men and humans versus nature always have a hierarchical dimension, with one above the other. Eco-feminists argue for the dismantling of such hierarchical thinking as the only way to prevent patriarchal domination of both women and the environment.
We must dismantle the biological assumptions about women that place them close to nature. Women are rational agents who are equal to men. Women are not simply mothers and caregivers and must not be essentialised. We must acknowledge that these characteristics are social constructions, designed and enforced by the patriarchy in order to maintain patriarchal power. The patriarchy puts women in a box and recognising gender roles as socially constructed is a way to help us get out of it. This will help to reduce women’s vulnerabilities to climate change, such as making collecting water not the sole responsibility of women.
Eco-feminism is not a perfect theory. The dichotomous nature of eco-feminism ignores the wide spectrum of gender, leaving many people excluded from the movement. It also fails to acknowledge class, disabilities, race and many more intersecting factors of identity. If eco-feminism is to appeal to a wider range of identities, an intersectional approach must be applied.
Despite its current limitations, eco-feminism has the potential to liberate women from the vulnerabilities of climate change and prevent the violation of so many womens’ human rights. Even if the movement compels small changes in your life, I’ll take that as a small win. Walking more instead of driving, buying local food and not using single use plastics are some small things that can help reduce emissions. Having the knowledge that me helping to reduce climate change will reduce the number of women risking their lives whilst walking to collect water, reduce the number of women being raped as a weapon of war and reduce the number of girls who are forced to marry so young, has really been a new added incentive for me. Hopefully it can be for you too.
Bigger changes are also encouraged through eco-feminism. Challenging the patriarchy and gender roles reduces patriarchal domination over women. Disassociating women with nature helps to reduce patriarchal domination over nature. Challenging hierarchical structures in society will change mindsets that humans are above nature and men are above women. Eco-feminism argues that these two huge feats must be worked at together. Whilst I agree with the message of eco-feminism, I am not sure whether I agree that they can only be achieved together. Either way, the fact that women are more vulnerable to climate change, as well as the fragility of our planet, compels me to make changes in my life. Hopefully it compels you too. An increased visibility of women’s vulnerabilities to climate change in the media is needed to bring about further awareness and change.