You probably heard the term ‘break the bias’ at some point around International Women’s Day. It was a theme put forward by InternationalWomensDay.com which, curiously, has There is no official connection with the day.
Many did not realise that UN Women had proposed a different and powerful theme: ‘Climate Change: Equality Today for a Sustainable Tomorrow’. This theme recognizes that climate change is having a devastating effect on gender equality. It should have been at the forefront of our national conversation.
Women around the globe are currently the ones suffering from more frequent and larger disasters, mass displacement, and poverty. Climate change doesn’t just affect the climate. It’s a threat multiplier– a deepening of social, economic, and political disadvantages
But how does climate change impact gender inequality? I had the honor to learn from them this year. Female leaders in the Pacific who I interviewed for the World Bank for International Women’s Day.
I asked these leaders – across health, education, business, and government – about their reflections on the idea of equality today for a sustainable tomorrow. They all shared a common thread in their responses: they had seen the problem firsthand. They saw that climate change was affecting gender equality in their communities.
18-year-old Ana Malia Felamaka from Tonga, a youth climate activist, started her advocacy after 2018’s Cyclone Gita ripped through the country, including her school. For the remainder of the school term, she was forced to study in a classroom without a roof. “From that point onwards, I was determined to create awareness and to play my role in the fight,” recalls Ana.
She isn’t alone. The Malala Fund estimates that four million girlsDue to climate disasters, including school damage, students will be forced to drop out of school.
The study found that girls often withdraw from school during droughts or other financial crises in order to support their families. Vinzealhar NenAnother youth climate activist is Papua New Guinea. Boys are encouraged to go to school after disasters and girls are expected to stay in agriculture or work at the markets to make ends meet.
For Vinzealhar, the connection between climate change and gender inequality couldn’t be clearer. She tells me of a recent flood in which boys were rescued first, while girls had to wait hours. “That’s the reality of gender inequality in communities,” Vinzealhar says.
Climate change also adds to the existing weight on women’s shoulders. To provide for their families, many Pacific women take up fishing and farming. Dr Salome TaufaTonga’s expert in fisheries, Dr. Aiasa, says that rising acidification means that women will need to seek out new food sources. Longer routes can prove dangerous and time-consuming. Women bear these extra burdens while taking on the lion’s share of family responsibilities.
Violence is also increased by disasters. Two tropical cyclones caused violence in Vanuatu in 2011. Domestic violence cases have increased by 300% reported to a local women’s counselling centre. Climate change is increasing disadvantage and leaving women more vulnerable to gender-based harm.
The reality is, women’s lives cannot be separated from the global issues around us. Gender inequality and climate change are interrelated and should be discussed together. Acknowledging this connection, alongside race, class and other areas of inequality, paints a clearer picture about who has the power and platform to change things – or keep them the same.
The bottom line is that climate change requires a feminist response. We are far from this. It’s scary. One step forward is to have women in decision-making rooms, from local governments to Parliament.
Mere NailatikauFijian host of Pacific Vosa podcastShe emphasizes the importance of Indigenous women being front and center. “We miss out on [indigenous women’s]Traditional knowledge is important when discussing climate change solutions. Gender inequality silences women in all their diversity.”
The problem is that Pacific women are often influenced by wealthy nations who have the potential to take climate action but choose not. These nations are empowered not by sustainability but by global systems that reward consumption.
International Women’s Day was a missed opportunity to hold that mirror up to ourselves, our organisations and decision makers who represent us. Yet while International Women’s Day comes and goes, climate change and gender inequality does not. Both are happening now and we can draw your attention to them. Right now.
Vinzealhar Nen’s advice for Pacific women is simple: talk. “The more you keep talking, the more people around us are aware of what’s happening. The more we bring life to the issues, the more the world will understand the reality of living in the Pacific during the climate crisis.”
Women, including Pacific women are speaking out about the climate crisis. It’s on us to listen.