When Mandelena became a mother, she was only 16. During the prolonged dry season in Gwor County, South Sudan, her community saw crops failing and cattle dying. Children stopped going to school because of hunger and women and girls had to walk up to five hours every day to collect water.
When resources for families further dwindled as the drought prolonged, young girls were married off for a dowry as soon as they reached puberty. Mandelena’s situation was no different. Indirectly, the course of her life had been forever changed by the environmental crisis that crippled her country.
All hands on deck
While environmental changes affect everyone, due to existing gender inequalities, women often bear the bulk of the burden. In patriarchal societies, cultural, legal and political restrictions often undermine women’s adaptability and resilience to climate change.
When cyclones and floods, droughts and extreme heat rip through the social fabric, communities need all hands on deck to deal with the repercussions. Lack of access to land and financial credit make it especially hard for women to bounce back from the onslaught.
When the effects of climate change don’t present themselves as emergencies that grab our attention on the evening news, but rather as slow-onset changes in landscapes and livelihoods, the most severe social consequences are for women and girls first.
• Being in charge of domestic fuel and water provision, women and girls have to walk farther to find these threatened resources. More and more unpaid hours are spent, which could otherwise have been spent on remunerative tasks or in school.
• Every year, indoor air pollution kills 4.3 million people, most of them women and children, because three billion people rely on inefficient cooking technology, such as wood, charcoal or animal waste.
The struggles of women and girls are only part of the picture, as gender equality concerns both men and women. In Mandelena’s community in South Sudan, cattle raiding is common and intimately linked with men’s needs to pay a good dowry for a young bride. This practice is upheld even as resources are becoming scarcer.
The result is a culture of violence, including sexual violence, to the backdrop of climate change and environmental degradation, which intensifies hunger, reduces water availability and kills cattle.
Holistic approach to a sustainable world
More than ever, the world is realizing that the sustainable development goals we set for ourselves aren’t standalone targets but rather a holistic approach to a more inclusive world. We need to recognize the key role women play in taking care of our communities, as they bear the brunt of environmental changes.
When we empower women – by supporting equal access to land, agricultural extension services, financial inclusion and education – we give them the tools to become true custodians of our biodiversity.
Some of the world’s most passionate environmentalists have shown the world that women could be powerful guardians of our planet and agents of change. We can capitalize on their knowledge and experiences.
As we increasingly become aware of the existential climate risks and repercussions of environmental degradation, governments and the private sector are pledging to take action in order to ensure a livable future for all, it is time to consider the role that women are already playing in the sustainable future of our world.
Who will lead our green revolution? Who will take the green jobs? And where will the science and innovations that facilitate our sustainable future come from?
If we want to make a real difference in our future, we have to empower every woman and man to be custodians of our earth. Because the legacy of our environment is the legacy of Mandelena’s daughters as much as her sons.