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Climate Change and Gender Equality

Why Empowering Women is Vital for our Planet's Future

"There's a solid base of evidence showing that women are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change, not because there is something inherently vulnerable about women, but because of socio-cultural structures that deprive women of access to resources, decision-making, information, agency, etc." - Marina Andrijevic, research analyst, Climate Analytics.

Climate change is not gender-neutral. While none of us is left unscathed by its effects, those who live in poverty, marginalised groups (women, the elderly, immigrants, indigenous groups, etc.), and people most reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods inevitably bear the brunt of its weight. Climate change increases the threat of catastrophic natural disasters like droughts, floods, landslides and hurricanes. But even when lives aren't necessarily at stake, more extreme and less predictable weather also means failed harvests, less food and income, unsafe drinking water, and unstable living conditions. All of which can prove disastrous to women and girls and only exacerbate threats to their rights and safety.

At TreeSisters, we recognise that environmental degradation and the degradation of women are perpetuated by the same systems of abuse: colonialism, patriarchy, racism and capitalism, and that the fight for our planet and gender equality are intrinsically linked. Climate change affects men and women differently, not because of something inherently vulnerable about women but rather the systems, powers and responsibilities currently entrenched in gender inequality that leave women particularly exposed in our current society.

Why does climate change affect women more?

Globally, women tend to take on more domestic and household-based roles. This means that in times of emergency, women tend to be within the home, a factor that directly contributed to 77% of the victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami being women. Women also take on more caring responsibilities for children, the elderly and the sick, leaving them ill-equipped to make fast decisions when disaster strikes. Even clothing, as stated by cultural and religious norms, can hinder a woman's ability to escape quickly in times of crisis. And if they do escape, climate change is considered a threat multiplier. Women and girls face an increased risk of gender-based violence during and following disasters, making them more vulnerable to early marriage, adolescent pregnancy, rape and trafficking.

But it's not just what happens during a climate change disaster that makes women more vulnerable to its effects. Women tend to have fewer assets, receive less education and continue to be excluded from decision-making processes. Women do not enjoy the same rights to land as men, a crucial resource for poverty reduction, food security and rural development. Although women comprise more than 40% of the agricultural labour force in the developing world (ranging from 20% in Latin America to over 50% in parts of Africa and Asia), they only own between 10 and 20% of the land. Yet despite this, women are more likely to depend on natural resources for their livelihoods, making them more susceptible to even the milder effects of climate change and extreme weather. And when climate change makes land-based work impossible, disparities in economic opportunities mean women are less able to turn to alternative forms of work. A 2015 study by the World Bank highlighted that 155 of the 173 economies it covered have at least one law impeding women's economic opportunities, such as barring women from factory jobs, working at night, or getting a job without permission from their husbands.

Women are also the solution.

"Women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development." - Principle 20 of the 1992 Rio Declaration of the UN Conference on Environment and Development.

Women's traditional, domestic role is one part of what makes them incredible agents of change. Women often have innate knowledge and expertise that can be used in climate change mitigation, disaster reduction and adaptation strategies for a more sustainable future. Every day, billions of women around the world make decisions that influence the environment, whether it's as cooks for their families (choosing food and fuel), as farmers (affecting soil carbon emissions), or as consumers (making purchasing decisions).

The role of rural and indigenous women should also be considered. In addition to the above, indigenous women traditionally hold deep ancestral knowledge of ecosystems and have often successfully lived in harmony with their lands. UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa said, "When indigenous women engage, climate policies and actions at every level benefit from their holistic, nature-focused knowledge and leadership,". Similarly, research has shown that if women in rural areas had the same access to agricultural resources, farm yields could increase from 20 to 30%, which would feed an additional 100 to 150 million people annually. Learning from these examples and increasing indigenous and rural women's participation in climate policy is critical to achieving a sustainable, inclusive future.

It's not just in traditional roles that women can positively influence the environment. Research over 35 years has shown that when women participate in politics, there is increased responsiveness to citizens' needs, increasing cooperation across party and ethnic lines and delivering more sustainable peace. Studies also show that countries with higher representation of women in Congress or Parliament are likelier to set aside protected land areas and ratify multilateral environmental agreements. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change further states that “women's inclusion at the local leadership level has led to improved outcomes of climate-related projects and policies. On the contrary, if policies or projects are implemented without women’s meaningful participation, it can increase existing inequalities and decrease effectiveness.”

What are TreeSisters doing?

The devasting effects of these unequal power structures is why TreeSisters seek to bring a lens of gender equality and focus on women's empowerment into everything we do. While dismantling these structures cannot be achieved overnight, the overwhelming evidence is clear - when women are empowered with improved healthcare and education and included in decision-making at national and community levels, they are vital to effective climate change solutions.

TreeSisters is more than an organisation funding the reforestation of the tropics. TreeSisters is a stand for life. We recognise that life cannot thrive in a power-over paradigm without equality. As a consistent funder of a suite of planting projects, TreeSisters selects and monitors projects to ensure that they are ethical, community-led and promote women's participation - all leading to improved socioeconomic outcomes. We also consistently seek to listen, identify challenges and solutions, and, where appropriate, facilitate sharing lessons learned and shifting the reforestation sector towards greater gender equality.

When women thrive, families, communities, and the environment can too. Through our work, we aim to tackle all forms of inequality and empower women everywhere to bring forward their vital gifts, knowledge and unique skills that support thriving relationships within communities and with nature.


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