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Not Victims, but Agents: the role of Women in the Fight against Climate Change

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With one eye on the UN Climate summit in Copenhagen in December, the European Development Days 2009 are a chance for us to demonstrate commitment to the challenges ahead: we have the common responsibility to prepare the global response to the economic crisis and climate change, as well as to lay the foundations for democracy and development. That's why I believe that we also have to use this forum to draw attention to a dimension of climate change which is often overlooked in the discussions on how to deal fairly with the effects of climate change: the fact that climate change increases social inequalities.

Here are the facts. It is widely known that the effects of climate change are not evenly spread out between countries and regions. For example, Africa as a continent is responsible for only 3.8 percent of global CO2 emissions, yet it is one of the regions suffering most from the devastating impact of climate change. And out of the 1.3 billion people living in conditions of poverty worldwide, seventy percent are women. The impact of climate change on the poorest nations on Earth will make them still poorer while at the same time widening the societal divides between men and women. Due to their restricted access to information and resources as well as their limited involvement in decision-making procedures, women are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.

That's why I hope that the European Development Days will provide a platform for women to make their voices heard. Not only as victims, as they are often represented in this debate, but most of all as agents in the fight against climate change.

The effects of climate change on women

Due to the division of labour and the already existing social discrimination, women and men are not equally exposed to the effects of climate change. Let me state two examples.

First, in sub-Saharan Africa, women are responsible for 70-80 percent of household food production. It is usually women who gather firewood and drawing water from wells. They also play a predominant role in agriculture. If local natural resources become scarce due to extended drought or flooding there is much evidence to suggest that in parts of the world these activities are now taking much more time. Under the current scenario, women have to work more in order to ensure the food supply of their household and therefore have less access to education. In this vicious cycle, social inequalities increase to the detriment of women.

Second, women are often faced with culturally grounded restrictions to participation in the public sphere. In some cases, women are not allowed to enter the public spaces without being accompanied by a man. In times of natural disasters caused by extreme temperatures, they have less access to information, be it the weather forecast or early warning systems for disasters. Research shows that the existing economic and social inequalities between women and men lead to more female victim during natural catastrophes. Women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die during a disaster. During the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, 65 percent of the victims were women. In contrast to men, they were mostly in their houses when the tsunami arrived, and had not received any warnings.

These examples show that under the current scenario, the impact of climate change will in the long run contribute to an increase in social inequalities. In other words, due to their role in society, women in developing countries are the most vulnerable to environmental degradation. An environmental degradation to which they have not contributed.

Earlier, this year, I learned from a group of female farmers in Liberia that they were not aware of the existence of climate change, even less were they aware of the factors that contribute to environmental degradation. But they could see that something is different. Something had changed in their everyday life. The seasons were changing and they no longer knew when to sow their crops. These are the people that are unjustly facing the consequences of climate change. This is the real challenge. Without action from us they will pay a high price for the actions of others. It is our responsibility to help to empower these women, to share our knowledge and give them the tools to adapt to changing environmental realities. And, above all, to include them in decision-making.

Women have to become agents in the fight against climate change

Just as it is important to acknowledge to what extent women are affected by climate change, we also have to help them to become real agents in the fight against climate change. Due to their role in societies and the tasks they fulfill in their community and family, women can contribute to the political debate with valuable experience. Their knowledge is crucial to adapting more effectively to climate change. It is also a necessity to take into account the specific life situations and needs of women when designing climate change and environmental policies.

There is another good reason to include women into the debate. Not only are they the providers of households and vital actors in agriculture, they are also the ones who will have to work with the renewable forms of energy such as biomass, biogas and solar, necessary in order to tackle climate change. More importantly, as mothers and educators they have a crucial role to play in the promotion of behavioural change in economic and societal activities.

Taking on the challenge

Despite their valuable knowledge and fundamental role in society, women are not sufficiently represented in decision-making procedures on climate change. Hence, their experience and needs are almost completely absent from the political debate. This is a situation which must change. In order to put the gender dimension on the agenda of environmental policies, women need to be consulted, informed and involved in the climate change debate, at the local, national and international level. The European Union has for a long time been a promoter of gender equality and is a leading actor on the international scene in the context of climate change and environmental policy. But more needs to be done to link both dimensions.

Climate change is a fundamental topic discussed during the European Development Days. Let us not forget listen to the voices of women in this debate. We should use this opportunity to put gender sensitivity on the agenda when adopting measures to fight climate change.


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