How can weather be a gender issue?

By Alison Holder, Director of Equal Measures 2030

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Farmers in Cambodia work to harvest their rice crop. (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

Earth Day is coming up this weekend, and that has us thinking about the environment and the climate and how that relates to gender issues.

Weather is weather, right? Doesn’t it affect us all in the same way, whether we are old or young, woman or man? Well, not quite…

Statistics tell us that in many parts of the world, the job of gathering water and wood for the household more often than not falls to girls and women.

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(UN/The World’s Women 2015)

Therefore, when weather affects the environment, women and girls can feel the effects more keenly.

“We used to be able to get water for irrigation from the streams that came down from the Huayna Potosi glacier,” says Leucadia Quispe, a 60-year-old mother of 8 in Bolivia. As the glaciers have diminished due to climate change, Leucadia says the streams are no longer there.

“Now we have to collect water from a river farther up in the valley,” a task which takes her many hours a day.

Statistics also show that women make up a large part of the agricultural workforce in many poorer countries. This, again, makes them vulnerable to the effects of climate and weather shifts.

However, a lack of gender-specific information skews policy making. For example, out of a sample of 93 national agricultural censuses conducted worldwide from 1989 to 1999, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that only 53 contained information on female-headed agricultural holdings.

Many researchers also question the gender patterns emerging from statistics that aim to present women’s participation in the agricultural workforce. Many women in rural areas, for example, will tell surveyors that “their home” is their primary responsibility, even if they are heavily involved in agriculture.

Censuses and household surveys also often tend to emphasize income-generating activities over subsistence production, leading to the undercounting of women’s involvement in agricultural activities such as rearing small livestock, kitchen gardening and processing crops after they have been harvested.

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Students from Al Quds University in the West Bank measure the effects of a desalination technology on plant growth. (USAID U.S. Agency for International Development)

Women have a critical role to play in helping the world adapt to climate change, whether it is through their work as farmers, researchers, activists or policy makers.

But when it comes to making decisions on issues related to the environment, women are very underrepresented. Only 30% of the workforce, and 19% of senior management, in National Meteorological and Hydrological Services are women. In poor and rich countries alike, women are less likely to be ministers of environment, climate change, transport or energy. The percentage of women working in the energy sector is also appallingly low.

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