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Women and climate change: Vulnerable, but not helpless

This disproportionality is due to the systemic inequality between men and women in society which, with its historical underpinnings, render women at a disadvantage.

It has unfavorable impacts on the independence and decision-making power of women and affects them economically, politically, and socially, among others. This in turn constrains the ability of women to adapt to climate change.

In September 2015, UN Women released an infographic as part of the "Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality" campaign which the highlights progress and challenges of women in society.

Despite certain commendable and certainly necessary progress in terms of closing the gap of gender inequality, women remain to be disadvantaged compared to their gender counterpart. (READ: Paris climate talks: Why women?)

With the effect of climate change already being experienced by people across the globe, especially those from developing countries such as the Philippines, women are predicted to experience the heaviest toll due to climate hazards.

Health risks

A paper released by the World Health Organization (WHO) examining gender, climate change, and health stated that “natural disasters such as droughts, floods and storms kill more women than men, and tend to kill women at a younger age.”

Climate-sensitive and gender-specific health impacts affect women disproportionately than men.

Examples of the health impacts unequally shouldered by women, as found in the WHO paper, are:

Vulnerable to disasters

The Philippines is considered as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Verisk Maplecroft has identified the Philippines as one of the ‘extreme risk’ countries, ranking 13th in its Climate Vulnerability Index of 2016.

In 2013, Philippines was ranked 1st in the list of the most affected countries based on the Global Climate Risk Index published by Germanwatch. Basically, the Philippines has consistently placed among the top in different climate-impact assessments.

When Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) happened in 2013, news of the disaster propelled the Philippines to worldwide attention.

Not only was the tragedy a proof of the great destructive power that climate change possesses, but it also provided confirmation on how truly vulnerable the Philippines is to conditions of the changing climate.

BURDEN. Women, despite being more vulnerable to disasters, can be agents of change when empowered to become leaders. Image courtesy of Ernest Fiestan

BURDEN. Women, despite being more vulnerable to disasters, can be agents of change when empowered to become leaders.

Image courtesy of Ernest Fiestan

Coping after disasters

Nearly 300,000 pregnant or new mothers were among the two million who needed food aid. Their health and safety was more at risk. (READ: Beyond food and shelter: Protecting women and girls in times of crisis)

Among the consequences of disasters upon women are shock, displacement, sexual violence and exploitation, health problems, and the loss of financial security within the family unit.

In order to provide food for their families, women have been forced to prostitution – an open secret which people know about but no one comes out in the open.

A few months after Yolanda, some members of Congress, through House Resolution No. 780, resolved that an inquiry must be conducted due to allegations of human trafficking cases in Samar and other disaster-stricken areas.

Furthermore, it has been reported that the number of cases of sexual exploitation and violence against women has increased in Tacloban City, post-Yolanda.

In 2015, Typhoon Lando (international name Koppu) left behind massive flooding, took at least 43 lives and affected 1.2 million people. The hardest-hit areas were the country’s prime rice growing region, destroying crops and affecting the agricultural as well as infrastructure sectors of the country.

The devastation brought about by Lando were felt months after its landfall when vegetable prices remained at high price due to the decrease in supply. A crisis like this impose an additional burden on women.

A fact sheet published by the UN Women Watch listed some reasons which increase the vulnerability of women to disasters. These include being placed in unsafe, overcrowded shelters due to lack of financial independence.

Women’s movements may be restricted for being the primary family caregivers. Poor access to health care has also been observed in countries of higher gender inequality. (READ: UNFPA: Ending inequality road to building resiliency)

'Agents of change'

Filipino women, and women in general, have been deemed by society as managers of the household and is assigned the role as gatherers of food, fuel and water. Because of this significant role, especially those who are from poor rural communities who are highly dependent on natural resources, women can be effective agents of change.

Women play a crucial part in ensuring that families survive natural disasters and that natural resources are managed in a fair, efficient, and sustainable manner.

Their voices, as bearers of traditional and important knowledge on the relationship of the family to nature, are indispensable in arriving at strategies and policies regarding adapting and mitigating impacts of climate change.

In addressing climate change, solutions must come fundamentally from a gender-sensitive and responsive perspective to ensure that women are afforded participation and are provided protection. Women must be allowed and encouraged to take an active role in developing policies and in working towards solutions.

Certain programs which lead towards gender equity are capacity building and finance mechanisms that provide women a means to become independent; encouraging and ensuring that women have a non-discriminatory access and equitable participation in decision-making processes; providing women leading roles in governance and administration especially because they possess significant knowledge in the management of resources; and incorporating gender perspectives in developing climate change-response policies and actions.

As a society, we must acknowledge the systemic inequality that exists between men and women and work in unity towards abolishing it. Because empowering women is empowering humanity*. –

*Phrase comes from the title of a UN Women Special Event held in September 2014

Kathryn Leuch is a feminist striving to ensure that she falls beyond the academic description of the label.