July, 2008

July 30th, 2008

Solutions Need Women’s Wisdom

The reports are in – the physical, social and economic impacts of global warming affect women more than men. So it’s appropriate that women are also in a position to have the greatest impact in fighting climate change. With the US presidential election looming, women represent a majority of those who will be going to the polls. With growing numbers in leading non-profit and corporate jobs, women continue to shake and steer the course of the world. And as the primary consumers of our society, the dollars they spend mean a lot. Climate Counts is pleased to feature the following guest post from the Women’s Environment & Development Organization (courtesy of our friends at the Communications Consortium Media Center), and we hope you appreciate their perspective as much as we do.

By June Zeitlin, Executive Director, Women’s Environment & Development Organization

The more we experience the effects of climate change, the clearer it becomes that everyone on the planet has a huge stake in what we decide to do now. That is why it is appalling that women are still being overlooked as key to the solution.

When storms and mudslides devastate a neighborhood, women shoulder most of the cleanup, stay home from work or school the most and take care of the injured. When drought hits the developing world, it is women whose crops and animals suffer most, as they produce most of the food in Africa and Asia. Women are the ones who risk assault to go further and further in search of water and firewood.

Women, in short, are the most affected by the disruptions of climate change. But women also have the most experience in coping. Women drive less, consume less and have smaller carbon footprints than men. Women’s initiatives are creating green jobs and slowing environmental damage worldwide. Yet women are generally left out of policy deliberations on what to do about global warming.

It is time for this to change. Next year’s new Congress will consider legislation to mandate new greenhouse gas emission standards and invest in measures to grow a greener U.S. economy. Election season offers politicians the chance to stand out from their opponents by recognizing women’s centrality on this issue and pledging to involve them in its solution. So far, it isn’t happening.

Women produce 65 percent of all the food in Asia and 75 percent of it in sub-Saharan Africa. Erratic weather means they must spend more time farming and gathering food, which leaves less time for education, outside work, personal and family life. The result: ill health, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, forced migration and conflict. But in Kenya, for example, Wangari Maathai started the Greenbelt Movement, urging women to be leaders in planting trees to prevent erosion and stand up for democracy. For this she won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

In Suriname, no one listened when women pointed out that a local river’s annual floods were getting worse and that perhaps the village should relocate to higher ground. It was wiped out the following year. When drought hit Micronesia, women were digging wells and creating new water sources long before the government decided what it could do. When Hurricane Mitch killed thousands in Central America in 1998, no one died in the Honduran town of La Masica because women there participated equally with men in all relief operations, went on rescue missions, rehabilitated local infrastructure, distributed food and took over the task, from men, of monitoring the early-warning system for disasters.

Women are a majority of the world’s poor, and the poor by definition live in substandard housing in marginal areas prone to drought, floods or resource shortages. Up to 70 percent of those killed in the 2004 Asian tsunami were women. In Bangladesh, the 1991 cyclone and flood killed 71 of every 1,000 women, compared to 15 of every 1,000 men. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, women forced into overcrowded housing suffered high rates of sexual abuse, while lack of child care facilities has cost many their jobs and health insurance. Contemplating the slow government response, Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton sponsored a resolution at the 2007 national lieutenant governors’ conference calling on officials to commit to action in their states against climate change.

Political candidates should take note that women are both those most affected by climate change worldwide and leaders in dealing with it. At the moment, the debate focuses on technical and economic issues. True, those are crucial: an effective policy should require emission cuts of 25 to 40 percent by 2020, suspend new coal plants and end U.S. fossil fuel dependence through incentives for energy efficiency and renewable resource production.

It should also require research on gender-specific patterns of resource use, vulnerability and coping mechanisms. It should call for new data collection about every proposal’s effects on women, and mandate involvement by women and gender experts in preparing U.S. policy and contributions to international discussions. It should recognize that success of the technical fixes will depend on the ways that women use natural and economic resources and the way they react to policy initiatives.

The planet’s future is at stake in the global warming debate, no question about it. Women are weighing in with reports and suggestions from the field where they know the terrain. It’s time for their voices to be heard and heeded.

June Zeitlin is the executive director of the Women’s Environment & Development Organization (WEDO). Founded in 1991, WEDO is an international organization that advocates for women’s equality in global policy.

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