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CLIMATE CHANGE: A Little Equality Could Save a Lot of Lives

Mirela Xanthaki

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 6 2009 (IPS) - When ministers and government officials meet at the end of this year for a critical U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen, they should bear in mind that the mortality rate for women during climate-related natural disasters is an average of 14 times higher than for men.

An elderly woman from the tsunami-ravaged village of Kolhuvaariyaafushi in the Maldives. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

An elderly woman from the tsunami-ravaged village of Kolhuvaariyaafushi in the Maldives. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

“Existing inequalities determine who is dying,” Rebecca Pearl, the coordinator of the Global Gender & Climate Alliance, told IPS.

After the 2004 Asian tsunami, the level of women’s mortality was in the range of 55 to 80 percent, with Indonesia the hardest-hit. Meanwhile, recovery grants often went only to male heads of households, since most women didn’t own any land.

In 1998, when severe flash floods hit Bangladesh, women’s mortality reached 90 percent. “The reasons behind this are that women were not taught how to swim and they were not allowed to leave their households. So when the flood happened and their men weren’t there, they didn’t want to leave their children behind or their culture didn’t permit them to leave their households without their husbands,” Pearl told IPS.

By contrast, when Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras that very same year, only the small community of La Masica reported no deaths. The reason was that women had participated in an early warning systems training six months earlier, and as a result evacuations were organised in time, making it the only community that had a 100-percent survival rate.

A 2006 study by the London School of Economics analysing disasters in 141 countries found that gender differences in deaths from natural disasters are directly linked to women’s economic and social rights. When women’s rights are not protected, more women than men will die from natural disasters, while when women’s rights are protected, the same number of women and men die from natural disasters.

Women farmers produce more than half of the food worldwide, maintaining seed caches of innumerable plant species. Many times, in droughts or floods, women are the ones responsible for finding new seeds or rehabilitating old ones to ensure that agriculture can continue, and that medicinal plants are available to their families and their communities. Ecosystem changes impact them directly.

In Africa, the percentage of women affected by climate change is estimated to range from 48 percent in Burkina-Faso to 73 percent in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Altogether, crop production is expected to fall 20-50 percent on the continent.

By 2025, an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population will have difficulty accessing water resources, and up to 15 percent will experience direct water shortages. Women who are usually responsible in rural villages for fetching the water will be forced to venture further to find it.

As Winnie Byanyima, the director of the U.N. Development Programme’s Women, Gender and Development Unit, noted, water insecurity is driving women in Kenya, for example, to spent 80 percent of their daily energy intake to fetch water – a process that often takes about eight hours.

Helene Oldrup, a researcher on gender studies at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen, talked about how gender perspective can contribute to negotiation and practices: “In the developing world especially, more effective use of knowledge and resources can lead to better decision making.”

Oldrup and others spoke at a panel on gender and climate change this week to coincide with the two-week U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and International Women’s Day.

Ulf Rikter-Svendsen, director of the Reform Resource Centre for Men in Norway, which tries to engage men in gender equality issues, noted that “making men the scapegoat will only strengthen their reluctance to take an active role.”

“We have just started incorporating men in the gender and climate change debate and in order for it to succeed we need to move past the point of women being seen as victims and men as evil and cooperate,” he said.

There is a growing understanding in policy-making and development circles that women in poor rural areas are closely connected to families, to natural resources, and often they are running the water tap in the community or bringing the food, and must be included in discussions.

Initial water systems in Micronesia didn’t include women in the planning process, but during a drought in 2003, when authorities had no one else to turn to, they realised that the women in the community knew where the water was and had to change the way they were doing things, Pearl told IPS.

“Women hold important knowledge. Policy makers usually respond to empiric scientific facts, but women possess a different kind of information that needs to incorporated,” Byanyima said.

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