Women “are the most likely to bear the heaviest burdens when natural disasters strike,” says a new report from the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), “Gender, Climate Change and Human Security: Lessons from Bangladesh, Ghana and Senegal
.” The report also encourages governments to allow women to play larger roles as agents of preparedness, mitigation, and adaptation.
Climate change, the report says, “forms a major threat to human security at national and livelihood levels.” Because 70 percent of people living below the poverty line are women, their livelihoods are threatened most acutely by climate change and the natural disasters it is likely to make increasingly frequent and severe. In addition, women are often responsible for “tasks such as food collection and energy supply for the household as well as many care-giving tasks, such as caring for the children, sick, elderly, the home and assets.” In the wake of a natural disaster, these activities can become nearly impossible, and being responsible for them can prevent women from migrating from disaster zones, despite the burden of living where disaster has struck. This migration, the authors write, has significant impacts on those who stay as well as those who leave, as “the relocation of people has severe impacts on social support networks and family ties—mechanisms that have a crucial value for women.”
Losing over half a million citizens to natural disasters between 1970 and 2005 has given Bangladesh the highest disaster mortality rate in the world, and gender-neutral data collection makes it difficult to determine gender-specific outcomes. From the data that does exist, the report notes that following the cyclone and flood disasters of 1991, for example, the death rate among adult women (20-44 years of age) was 71 per 1000, almost five times higher than the rate of 15 per 1000 for adult men.
There is consensus that South Asia is among the regions most affected by climate change, the report says, and that Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country in the region. For the 80 percent of Bangladeshi women who live in rural areas and are solely responsible for water and firewood collection, food preparation, and family health care, the future appears increasingly imperiled.
A study published last year in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers confirmed that natural disasters decrease the life expectancy of women much more dramatically than men; that the more intense the disaster, the stronger this effect; and that the wealthier the women, the less they are affected by this phenomenon.
Even as women suffer disproportionately from climate change and natural disasters, the report says, “women are more often overlooked as potential contributors to climate change solutions,” and their ability to contribute to preparation, mitigation, and rehabilitation efforts is undervalued. The report recommends that countries develop National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) that involve women as contributors to adaptation processes and work toward “improving human security in the context of climate change from a gender perspective.”