Nature and Biodiversity

Intersectionality can help us identify the women at climate change's sharpest edge 

Intersectionality is an important approach to understanding how the climate crisis is affecting women differently based on social, economic or other differences.

Intersectionality is an important approach to understanding how the climate crisis is affecting women differently based on social, economic or other differences. Image: REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Nour Hazem Mohamed
Outgoing Curator, Global Shapers Alexandria Hub; Project Manager, Mostadam Project
Nada Mohamed
Curator, Global Shapers Alexandria Hub; Researcher, N Gage Consulting
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Women everywhere are disproportionately impacted by climate change, whether that means deepening existing inequalities or exposing them to the threat of gender-based violence.
  • Intersectionality can help us understand better how and why some groups of women are more impacted than others.
  • By understanding intersectionality, we can give women a place at the table and catalyse meaningful action on the climate crisis.

Based on current projections, it will take 131 years to reach full gender parity. Climate change, if not properly addressed, threatens to fatally undermine that pursuit, delaying it even further.

From care work to gender-based violence, women everywhere are already being impacted by the climate crisis in different ways. Intersectionality can help us understand how different groups are impacted, and help the right women get to the right places to affect positive change in their communities and beyond.

The impacts of the climate crisis on the well-being of women everywhere are broad — ranging from subtle detriments on the amount of time they have and the work they do, all the way to heightening the risk of gender-based violence in times of crisis.

These issues could entrench further and grow more pervasive if climate change is not addressed effectively, for example by deepening educational and economic rifts.

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Women and the climate crisis

From North America to Africa, women already often occupy disadvantageous roles in the economy, with many employed in climate-sensitive sectors or in resource-based activities.

Take, for example, how 43% of women in developing countries work in agriculture, yet just 12.6% of women globally are landowners, ultimately leaving them with little buffer or compensation in the wake of climate disasters that might affect their livelihoods.

To make matters worse, as it stands, women carry out 75% of unpaid care work globally. This gap is projected to widen as climate-induced disasters increase in frequency. Social norms and prescribed gender roles often dictate to women the need to fend for their families, further exacerbating differences between unpaid work in the home.

The combination of climate change and gender inequity threatens to further exacerbate the “resource and time poverty” that women all over the world are subject to. This, in turn, will undermine girls’ education, as they are forced to drop out of school to help with household chores or be forcefully married in exchange for dowry to keep the family afloat. It also compromises women’s health.

In times of acute crisis, gender based violence (GBV) rises, as does economic vulnerability. As a “threat multiplier”, the climate crisis has been closely related to increasing the risks of sexual, mental and economic abuse that women face.

Extreme weather events, like droughts, culminate in elongating the trek women must take to fetch water and food for their families, or even to use toilets; this makes them more susceptible to sexual abuse and sexual exploitation in exchange for clean water, as well as human trafficking.

Somali women have already experienced some of these impacts, where, in the drought of 2021, many incidences of gang rape were reported as a byproduct of the culminating conflicts and social tension.

Climate-driven displacement, too, is expected to further ingrain these issues. Women constitute 80% of the people displaced by climate change. As women are typically primary caregivers and the finders of food and fuel, floods and droughts can force women to walk further for water and other necessities.

Displacement can lead to other knock-on effects. For instance, displacement makes women increasingly susceptible to exploitation during the search for refuge or inside the displacement camps that so often spring up in refugee crises. In these scenarios, sexual abuse and health issues are far more common than in their old lives.

Economic abuse and food insecurity induced by the climate crisis opens the door to mental abuse and non-physical coercion. These issues can cause women to depend more on their partners, and make them more susceptible to economic abuse, for example, in exchange for money or food.

These impacts are felt by women differently. Some will experience just a few of these issues while others could be struck by the full spectrum of challenges. Others still will have unique experiences based on their own personal situations. To understand this better, we must incorporate intersectionality into our understanding of the climate crisis.

Intersectionality: the women at climate change’s sharpest edge

Impacts of climate change do not take one form and are not experienced equally by women globally. In fact, a woman’s socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, birth place and residence largely dictate the extent of the impact of climate change on their lives.

An intersectional lens is essential when it comes to assessing the disparate impacts that climate change has on women.

To better understand this, we want you to stop here for a second and reflect on the intersectional identities that women hold. For instance: do you think that a rich woman would be affected by climate change differently from a poor woman? A woman of colour differently to a white woman? Likewise for women with disabilities and those without?

Forgetting this can have a detrimental effect on the fight against climate change, particularly when it comes to the impact it has on women. Remembering this, however, can be a great asset in the fight against climate change. Incorporating diverse views, from those that understand how climate change is affecting them and the most vulnerable around them, is a great advantage in mitigating the impact of climate change and making sure any action taken will genuinely help.

By understanding intersectionality, we can give women a place at the table and catalyse meaningful action on the climate crisis.
By understanding intersectionality, we can give women a place at the table and catalyse meaningful action on the climate crisis. Image: Canadian Foodgrains Bank

From victimhood to action

Women hold great potential in spearheading the fight against the climate crisis and increasing their communities’ resilience — but that potential remains untapped.

Women parliamentarians are more likely to pass environmental treaties. Increasing women’s access to land ownership could contribute to increasing agricultural yield by 20-30%; saving 100-150 million people from hunger in developing countries. Despite that, women are inadequately represented in relevant decision-making bodies.

If the international community at large is going to succeed in the fight against climate change, it needs to re-examine the untapped potential and the role women could play in leading this fight. Not only are women everywhere among the most at-risk people if we fail, but they’re also the most capable of helping us succeed.

Simply put: “We need women in spaces where decisions on their wellbeing is discussed, especially decisions about the future of our planet.” Achieving this won’t only benefit that little Somali girl who would have to quit her education, or that Ugandan woman who got raped during a drought. It will help the entirety of society.

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