I was out to dinner with my family, giving them all the big updates and happenings from my life, when I started talking about some research I was doing on how women are adversely affected by climate change. My uncle balked at the thought.
“Why would women be more vulnerable than men?”
Yes, men will be heavily affected by climate change, and yes, they will have to deal with food shortages and rising sea levels just like women. But what my uncle didn’t realize was how the place of women in societies around the world puts them at a special risk. Women are more likely to be affected by extreme weather events linked to climate change because resources are their responsibility.
Despite being expected to be the resource-gatherer for the family, women do not have equal rights in much of the world. In Tanzania, for example, nearly two-thirds of jobs and about half of the country’s GDP are related to the agricultural sector, with 80% of rural women taking part in these activities. Despite this vital contribution, Tanzanian women are still often prevented from owning land and receiving a formal education, resulting in nearly 60% of Tanzanian women living in absolute poverty.
These gender inequalities and divides are the reasons why women are less able to cope with and adapt to climate change, which is only expected to worsen. Rainfall in Tanzania is becoming more and more unpredictable and unreliable. Water scarcity makes it more difficult to feed families as well as alleviate poverty. A lack of fresh water also makes household chores more laborious and time intensive. All of this ultimately takes time away from formal education and income-generating activities and perpetuates the downward spiral of poverty.
In Tanzania, girls who live less than 15 minutes from a water source had 25% higher school attendance than girls living an hour or more away. Unfortunately, many walk even farther. A woman from Kingolwira, Tanzania reported walking 8 miles during the dry season to retrieve water from a river that was already contaminated. To confront this issue, women of Kingolwira led a community-wide effort to build a small dam from which water could be pumped into the village and retrieved from water kiosks.
Greater access to water has transformative effects on women and their communities. Increased access to potable water often leads to improved health for women and girls, reduced child and maternal mortality, increased dignity and reduced psychological stress, reduced physical injury, and reduced risk of rape, sexual assault, and increased safety.
This burden will only increase. Water scarcity could plague nearly half of the global population as soon as 2030 with demand outpacing supply by 40%. Women will face the worst of the problem, but when given the opportunity and a voice, they also have the ability to help themselves and create effective adaptations and solutions. Women may be the most vulnerable, but they also hold the power to make a change.