Women’s health and climate change: Time for more “Blah, Blah, Blah”?
Definitive evidence continues to demonstrate how climate change is devastating human and planetary health in low, lower-middle, upper-middle, and high-income country contexts across the globe. It remains the greatest global public health challenge of the 21st century, and despite the output of COP26, it is certain that climate change will continue to be an ever-intensifying existential threat to humanity in the years and decades ahead.
While climate change clearly affects humanity as a collective, it is well-established that the process has a disproportionately negative impact upon the health of women when compared to men, especially within low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Problematically, this inequitable fact did not receive enough discussion (let alone “blah, blah, blah”) from activists and politicians alike in global level policymaking domains, such as COP26, which concluded last week in Glasgow. This absence of dialogue is inherently vexing in global health terms, and significantly more discussion is required to address the destabilising effects of climate change on women, specifically, those who live in politically and economically insecure parts of the world. Crucially, issues that are not discussed do not get funded, and important problems, like the impact of climate change on women’s health, remains too far down on the global level policymaking agenda and poorly understood by society at large. Therefore, this short commentary aims to discuss the relationship between climate change and the health of women, and to examine how women, across all stages of their biological life course, will be disproportionally impacted by the destabilising effects of climate change, both now, and in the future.
The pernicious power of gender-based inequalities and socially constructed norms
“No one escapes the harrowing, heartbreaking consequences of climate change, and the number of people needing humanitarian assistance will double by 2030 because of it. This isn’t a competition on who suffers most when nature responds violently to the abuses perpetrated by mankind. But vulnerable and marginalized groups like women – who make up the majority of the global poor and whose livelihoods are largely dependent on natural resources among other risk factors – are exposed to particular calamities. According to UNDP, women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster” (UNFPA: 2021)
Women across the planet, especially those living within LMICs, face the growing climate emergency weighed down by entrenched gender-based inequalities and socially constructed norms which will continue to persist as the temperature of the planet rises. While droughts, heatwaves, rising sea levels, and extreme storms affect both biological sexes, the combination of existing gender-based inequalities, and outmoded social norms, mean that women will face the intensifying climate emergency to a greater extent than men. This is because women are economically, politically, and more socially disadvantaged relative to men, and these structured inequalities will create countless health-based challenges for women as the world continues to burn, or indeed flood, depending upon the geographical location.
We can consider specific LMICs in sub-Saharan Africa, where entrenched social norms and ongoing gender-based inequalities mean that women and girls must continue to function as the primary caregivers to their families in locations that are becoming environmentally, economically, and politically more insecure due to the deleterious influence of climate change. In many sub-Saharan African countries, women and girls must undertake the primary responsibility for collecting water, firewood, and fuel. This laborious activity can result in vast distances being covered by women, and often young girls, in search of these scarce resources, which themselves are becoming even more limited due to extreme weather-based variations in the region. In carrying out these gender-based functions, far too many women and girls face serious health problems including heatstroke, dehydration, and malnutrition relative to men. Compounding these problems further, when female populations have been displaced due to climate change, for example, droughts in Somalia and Angola, they can, when attempting to perform their gendered roles in new locations, face an increased risk of physical and sexual violence from men at refugee or internally displaced persons camps.
Climate change can also exacerbate negative maternal and neonatal health outcomes from specific diseases for women at various stages of their biological life course in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, vector-borne illnesses like malaria and dengue fever can cause miscarriage, premature birth, and anaemia, which are especially serious health issues when experienced within the context of certain sub-Saharan African countries. As temperatures climb in the region, this lengthens the seasons when mosquitoes are active, and thus increases the risk of vector-based illnesses. In the years ahead, it is highly probable that climate change will increase the global burden of disease for conditions like malaria in geographical locations that have been traditionally non-malarious. Problematically, this will create serious implications for the health of women in countries with limited experience in the treatment of vector-based diseases at the population level.
We must have a meaningful conversation about the well-being of women around the world
The issues outlined above demonstrate how changes in climate seriously undermine the health of women across all stages of their biological life course at the global level. As stated, climate change negatively affects humanity in its totality, however, the process disproportionally impacts upon the most vulnerable and marginalised members of global society – namely girls and women. While COP26 aims to support vulnerable nations to cope with the deadly impacts of climate change, it is probable that significantly more women and girls will continue to live with, and die from, a destabilising process that is made worse by existing gender-based inequalities and socially constructed norms that will remain stubbornly in place in the years and decades ahead. As the world warms, it is difficult to be optimistic about the health of women in the future, especially within LMICs in sub-Saharan Africa. Naturally, more urgent discussions are required by national and supranational policymakers to create gender-specific policies that can be deployed to mitigate the destructive impact of climate change in the future. To date, we have not even reached “blah, blah, blah” levels in relation to climate change and its negative impact on the health of women globally. Thus, it is time for more productive dialogue and evidence-based policy action to fight the growing climate emergency for all women everywhere.
1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2021) Climate change widespread, rapid, and intensifying. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/2021/08/09/ar6-wg1-20210809-pr/ – date accessed: 11/11/2021
2. World Health Organisation (2014) Gender, Climate Change and Health. Available at: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/gender-climate-change-and-health – date accessed: 11/11/2021
3. United Nations Population Fund (2021) Five ways climate change hurts women and girls. Available at: https://esaro.unfpa.org/en/news/five-ways-climate-change-hurts-women-and-girls – date accessed: 11/11/2021