STORY AND PHOTO BY KATHLEEN CALLAHAN
To prove that climate change has a greater impact on women than men, Joanna Kerr opened her lecture with an eight-minute film about a woman named Martina.
Martina, who lives in Kotido, Uganda, no longer hears the chirp of the Elele bird signaling the coming rain, because the birds – and the rain – have disappeared. Droughts mean thirst and no water with which to cook, if they can even find food.
The trees in Martina’s village no longer bear fruit and the women have to walk further each day to find firewood and food. Thirty per cent of the developing world gets its energy from wood. It is often the woman’s job to collect it, but this job grows harder as resources dwindle.
Standing at the bottom of a dried river and digging deep through hard rock, Martina and the other women from her village are relieved to unearth murky brown water. But water doesn’t always mean salvation. In other years, the rain has come too hard, bringing floods and destroying crops.
“There aren’t enough words to express the pain to you,” Martina tells the camera.
Kerr used Martina’s story to show how climate change, the food crisis and the global economic crisis are affecting women more severely than men in developing countries. That’s a lot of crises for a one-hour lecture, but Kerr is not new to discussing issues of women’s rights and gender equality.
After getting an MA in Gender and Development from the University of Sussex, she was a senior researcher and manager of the gender program at the North-South Institute in Ottawa, a research institute that analyses foreign policy and international development. She is also the former executive director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development in Toronto. In addition, she has published extensively on issues surrounding economic justice and gender.
She is currently the Director of Policy and Outreach at Oxfam Canada. CCEPA partnered with Oxfam to host the event which about 60 people attended, entitled “Just in Time: The Burden of Climate Change on Women.”
But Kerr admits she is new to the study of climate change and the environment.
So what makes women more susceptible to the dangers of climate change than men? Kerr says women are the “unpaid caregivers,” meaning they treat patients – men and children – ahead of their own needs.
Natural disasters also tend to kill more women than men, especially in countries where women have the fewest rights, according to this 2006 report by the London School of Economics.
From the report:
“Yet, the most important reason why women are more vulnerable to the fatal impact of natural disasters is because of their lower social and economic status in many countries. With existing patterns of gender discrimination, boys are likely to receive preferential treatment in rescue efforts and both women and girls suffer more from the shortages of food and economic resources in the aftermath of disasters.”
In the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 225,000 people, a study by Oxfam showed that in some regions, four times as many women as men were killed. They attributed this to women waiting at home with their children or on the beaches for the fishermen to return. Kerr said many women also lacked access to transportation like bicycles to leave the most dangerous zones.
But Kerr is quick to point out that men are also affected. She says climate change will always impact the most vulnerable and poor, and as the global economy worsens, there is less funding to aid climate-related disasters.
Kerr cited many reasons why women are harder hit by the worldwide recession:
- Women are particularly affected by job cuts, especially when spending cuts are made on health and education.
- Job creation projects are often aimed at men, with an emphasis on the “male breadwinner.”
- When men are out of work, women will pick up two or three jobs to support the family.
- During times of economic hardship, there are often spikes of violence against women.
And don’t forget about the food crisis. The U.N. reported recently that one billion people worldwide – one-sixth of the world’s population – are going hungry, 100 million more people than there were at this time last year. Kerr says a lack of investment in food security in the last 20 years has contributed to the food crisis. The global economic crisis has only compounded the food crisis, with more people out of work and unable to afford rising food costs.
Hunger affects women most because they will eat less and give more nutritional food to men and children, says Kerr.
“Families survive because women eat less.”
Given these sobering statistics, it’s hard to know where to begin to conquer any or all of these crises. Kerr says the solution is “incredibly simple and complex.”
The simple part: enact any changes possible to make the world a more sustainable place. The complex part touches upon the root of these problems: Kerr says we must find the causes of the issues, and find sustainable models of development on which to rebuild.
The problem? Kerr says we have a short period of time for such a huge, systematic change. It would require an “unprecedented amount of consensus.
Educating women, giving them access to land and technology and supporting female leadership are essential to the new system, says Kerr.