Gender, climate change and food security

Last week, Grantham Scholar Monica Ortiz attended an event, ‘What Has Gender Got To Do With Climate Change?‘, hosted by Sheffield Feminist Network. Here, she reflects on how a changing climate is affecting women around the world.

monica-ortiz“What has gender got to do with climate change?”

I asked myself this question as I walked to a talk on that very subject, hosted by the Sheffield Feminist Network last week. Jenny Patient and Heather Hunt from the Sheffield Campaign against Climate Change and the Sheffield Climate Alliance led discussions and shared exciting opportunities to become engaged in the local campaigns for climate justice and gender equality.

We started the evening talking about ‘the elephants in the room’: firstly, climate change. All those who felt close to the issue were asked to take a step forward. I took a big step forward. As a Grantham Scholar but also as a citizen from a very climate-vulnerable country, the Philippines, climate change is constantly on my mind.

The second elephant in the room as the issue of feminism. How close did I feel to this issue? I took an honest step back, and admitted that I need to learn to step out of my comfort zone of science and engage more in gender equality and social equity issues. As a physical scientist, I tend to think of problems in a methodological manner: collect observations, formulate a hypothesis, run some experiments or models, collect the data and write-up whatever results we find. Done.

Climate change is no such problem and it would be a great mistake to think of it only in that way. Climate change, and for that matter food security, is a wicked problem. As I learned that evening through our discussions and the speakers, climate change is a problem that involves power, political will, voice – and yes, definitely gender.

In a report by the United Nations Inter-Agency on Women and Gender Equality, women are regarded as being more vulnerable to the effects of climate change compared to men. Most of the world’s poor are women. In many places around the world, there is high inequality in women’s rights and access to education, health care, and resources. These present enormous social, economic and political barriers that can limit women’s coping capacity to deal with climate change, which is already felt in natural hazards like tropical cyclones, floods and droughts.

Women are more dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, particularly in developing countries and in rural areas. Women in developing countries are also largely in charge of securing water, food and fuel, and face great challenges in the collection of these resources, including violence or harassment.

Women from Sorsogon province in the Philippines rely on a successful harvest to feed their families and make plant-based handicrafts to supplement the family income. Photo by Monica Ortiz.
Women from Sorsogon province in the Philippines rely on a successful harvest to feed their families and make plant-based handicrafts to supplement the family income. Photo by Monica Ortiz.

According to UN statistics, 45-80% of food in developing countries is produced by women. In many African countries, this may be more than 90%. As climate change impacts food production, the supply of traditional food sources may become more unpredictable and scarce, and related increases in food prices may make food more inaccessible to the poor. The health of women and girls has been found to decline more than male health in times of food shortages.

Even in developed countries like the UK, some women at the discussion shared that the responsibility of buying food, cooking and preparing meals still rests with women, a sentiment echoed at the recent Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty hearing. One participant at the Sheffield Feminist Network event said: “Even the choice between what food to buy is difficult, when you care about climate change but are faced with limited resources. Should I buy organic? Something with less air miles?”

The UN also reports that unequal access to resources, the existence of gender discrimination and limited mobility significantly limit women’s participation in decision-making processes. Women are often excluded from decision-making that governs the access and use of land and resources critical to their livelihoods. Though heavily discussed, many advocacy groups felt that gender issues were severely lacking from final outcomes at RIO+20 in Brazil, as Heather Hunt shared from her experiences there.

Women’s groups listen to the village captain from Camotes Island in the Philippines, which won the United Nations Sasakawa Award for Disaster Risk Reduction. Women’s groups are involved in the small islands’ “purok” (sub-village) planning system. Photo by Monica Ortiz.

Gender should be a non-negotiable part of our discussions when we talk about food security, climate change adaptation and how to live more sustainably. Women have an enormous role in the production of food, in the preparation of food and also have their own needs for safe and nutritious food. Strategies to address climate change should be gender-sensitive and address the rights of women with regard to food security, non-discriminatory access to resources, and equitable participation in decision-making processes.

However, while women may be more vulnerable to climate change, seeing them as victims would be severely underestimating their strength and capacity as effective actors and agents of change. Women possess a strong body of knowledge and expertise that can be used in climate change mitigation, disaster reduction and adaptation strategies.

As I went home and thought about the evening’s discussions, I thought about my own project and reminded myself that not only do I have a responsibility to produce relevant results in light of food security, but that I also need to look at the bigger picture of climate justice, inequality and the fight for social justice.

Local events of interest for those involved in climate justice:

Time to Act! – Join Sheffield Climate Alliance on the train or coach to this mass creative action on climate change on 7 March in London.

Sheffield Sing for the Climate! – A group of Sheffield people raising awareness about the risks of climate change and having fun and singing while they do it.