The visible impacts of climate change in Africa — deforestation, flooding, drought, soil erosion, coastal storms and changing weather patterns — are striking, but so is its impact on women.
In sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the drylands and the Sahel region, where climate change is aggravating poverty, women are disproportionately affected because of their close connections to the environment. In addition to their involvement in agriculture, rural women are responsible for household chores, particularly the fetching of water and energy sources, including charcoal and firewood, for cooking and heating.
Experts say that climate change most affects those who depend mainly on natural resources and whose livelihoods are climate sensitive—many are poor farming women. According to a 2015 report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), about two-thirds of the female workforce in developing countries is involved in agricultural labour, and that number is higher in Africa’s rural areas.
of Africa’s population is 30 minutes or more away from a safe drinking water source, according to the UN.
Natural resources are becoming ever scarcer due to climate change, which presents additional challenges for women. For instance, in rural Senegal rainy seasons are shorter than before and there’s been a 35% decline in total rainfall over the last two decades. As a consequence, women walk longer distances to fetch drinking, cooking and washing water, according to a study by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), a group that promotes gender equality and the integrity of the environment.
Searching for water
Walking long distances is physically exhausting, and it can take up to 20 hours or more a week to locate safe water, regularly check the water levels in established wells and, finally, haul it home. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, 37% of the population is 30 minutes or more away from a safe drinking water source, according to DESA.
Most African women also take care of their children, the elderly and those in ill health. These responsibilities can take around five hours a day. Climate change effects, particularly drought, flooding and changing rain patterns, make these tasks even more arduous.
In Kenya, for example, people living around Mount Kenya have noticed that the snowcaps on the mountain have almost disappeared. This means less water for farming and other agricultural uses, as well as for downstream cities and urban areas. As a result, Kenyan women may walk miles in search of water for domestic use. People living around Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania are facing similar problems.
Climate change affects African women in many other ways. Though they make regular use of natural resources, they have few if any ownership rights. In Mali, where over 50% of women are involved in agriculture, just 5% are titled landholders, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Even in countries that are faring relatively well economically, such as Botswana and Cape Verde, only 30% of women legally own land although around 50% are involved in agriculture.
Asa Torkelsson, economic empowerment adviser at the UN Women regional office for eastern and southern Africa, says there have even been reports of demands for sex in return for access to water sources or firewood.
Further, says Ms. Torkelsson, women who go in search of water and firewood often find themselves vulnerable in other ways. “There are other violent situations, or at least provocations to women’s ownership of their own bodies,” Ms. Torkelsson told Africa Renewal.
Where farming and herding have disappeared due to climate change, some women turn to sex work because they lack other options.
Coping with disasters
There are reasons women are more vulnerable than men to natural disasters such as flooding and soil erosion. With minimal access to information, and limited mobility outside their homes, women are 14 times more likely than men to die during natural disasters, reports the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Climate change has also displaced many women from their homes, making them internally displaced persons or cross-border refugees. Extreme weather conditions, particularly droughts, drying river basins in southern and eastern Africa, and flooding and rising sea levels in West Africa, have forced many women to migrate, according to the Centre for International Disaster Information.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC), women and adolescent girls are the most vulnerable refugees, as they face a greater risk of being trafficked for sex while moving to a foreign land and of experiencing gender-based violence while in the refugee camps. In the camps, women risk assault when they venture out of the protected environment in search of water and firewood.
Leila Abdulahi, a 25-year-old Somali refugee who arrived in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya after the 2011 drought, narrated her experience to UN Women in 2014: “We are afraid to go fetch firewood in the forest. Bandits attack us in our own homesteads and rape us. If I had the money, I would just buy firewood and I wouldn’t then have to go or send my daughter to the forest.”
Climate change opportunities
Just as women are disproportionately affected by climate impacts, they also play crucial roles in preventing climate change, at least in small ways, and even helping their communities adapt to it.
“Women are actually essential game changers as actors and leaders in climate change,” explains Rahel Steinbach, programme officer at the UNEP’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics.
We are afraid to go fetch firewood in the forest. Bandits attack us in our own homesteads and rape us. If I had money, I would just buy firewood and I wouldn’t have to go or send my daughter to the forest.
Ms. Steinbach adds that women can bring energy-efficient and renewable energy sources closer to those who need them through entrepreneurship, a goal that’s being promoted through a new UN Women and UNEP initiative called Women’s Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Development.
The programme will be rolled out globally but will start in six countries, two of them in Africa: Morocco and Senegal. Other countries are Bolivia, India, Indonesia, and Myanmar. It will train women on sustainable energy technologies and on accessing finance for women entrepreneurs.
Likewise, a Uganda-based social enterprise called Solar Sister is working with 1,500 women in Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda to distribute solar equipment in rural Africa, where kerosene is widely used. The initiative aims to have women support sustainable development as well as earn an income, especially during unpredictable climate conditions.
The women buy solar-based lamps, phone chargers and panels at low cost and then mark up the items for resale and pocket the difference, which can amount to anywhere between $10 and $200 a month.
From waste to profit
Another joint programme between UN Women and UNEP, called Women Empowerment through Climate-Resilient Agriculture, helps women farmers use new techniques and technologies, particularly resilient seeds, to ensure that agriculture is better able to withstand erratic drought and flood cycles, says Seemin Qayum, a policy adviser on sustainable development at UN Women.
The programme also tackles crop waste caused by lack of markets and proper storage facilities. The goal is for agricultural products to eventually reach bigger markets, not just local ones, where profits will be higher.
In Kenya, for example, between 30% and 40% of yields is wasted due to a lack of proper post-harvest storage. With mangoes the waste is as high as 60%. Similarly, in Nigeria and Tanzania, nearly half of all food grown is lost, reports the Rockefeller Foundation, a private charity helping to build more resilient and inclusive economies.
UNEP and UN Women are now collaborating with the Rockefeller Foundation and other partners to look into post-harvest storage and climate-smart technologies that can help women turn waste into profit, and provide financial security to households.
“The hope is that, very soon, women can cease to be victims of climate change and become agents of social change,” says Ms. Steinbach.