As one of the countries most responsible for climate change, the United States has an obligation to lead the fight to cut emissions and move to renewable forms of energy. With the rise of Trump and his administration, however, the United States will continue to focus on fossil fuels while the rest of the world moves towards renewal energy.
Island countries, particularly low-laying atolls and islands in the specific, are already being destroyed by rising sea levels. Drought, storm deluges, intense hurricanes, flooding, desertification, etc. are wreaking havoc world-wide. I have written about how women are responsible for most of the food production and water-gathering in the world, yet continue to be disenfranchised by actual ownership of the land – thus bearing the brunt of climate change. Furthermore, as it becomes harder to find water and food due to drastic environmental change, women are being forced to sacrifice education as they spend more time taking care of their families.
But another aspect of the unequal impact of climate change on women are natural disasters such as hurricanes, flooding, storm surges, and lengthened drought. As natural disasters increase, women will increasingly find themselves in disaster situations in which, according to studies such as the “Annals of the Association of American Geographers,” they are more vulnerable and more likely to die than men.
This is especially true of women of lower socio-economic status living in countries with higher inequalities between the sexes. Unfortunately, many of the lands most vulnerable to and least able to mitigate climate change-driven natural disasters have large populations of low income women along with greater sex inequality. According to Oxfam, more women died in the 2004 tsunami than men:
The tsunami decimated Southeast Asia on 26 December 2004, killing more than 220,000 people in 12 countries and leaving 1.6 million people homeless. According to a survey recently carried out by Oxfam, four times as many women than men were killed in the tsunami-affected areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India . Some of the reasons for this are similar across these countries: women died because they stayed behind to look for their children and other relatives. Women in these areas often can’t swim or climb trees, which meant that they couldn’t escape.
The tsunami was not a natural disaster due to climate change, but the flooding and displacement of the tsunami mirrors that of increasingly powerful monsoons and hurricanes due to climate change – thus there is good reason to believe women will experience similar inequalities in death rates as natural disasters intensify.
But it isn’t just death that impacts women more than men in natural disasters. Across the globe, women are often in charge of familial care-taking even though they do not wield power within community governing structures. Therefore any decision making before, during, and after a natural disaster tends to be made by men with little thought of the unique needs of women. Because of women’s stereotyped roles as caretakers, their needs and opinions are often given very little consideration – or none are all.
After a natural disaster, women face patriarchal structural challenges to recovery, particularly in developing nations with strong biases against women. Property is often in men’s names, so women have a hard time claiming family assets, and women who do not live in male-headed homes are especially vulnerable, as recovery efforts often focus on property owners – and the vast amount of property in this world is owned by men. In fact, when a natural disaster causes an absence of men (i.e. husbands), whether temporary or permanent due to death, that man’s family can, and does, make a grab for the family’s land, further disenfranchising women.
The vulnerability of females to natural disasters goes even further. Women face increased threats of domestic violence and rape as they are displaced from their homes, including in developed nations as witnessed during Hurricane Katrina. In developing nations, girls and women become more vulnerable to sex trafficking and prostitution, including transactional sex for food and basic life necessities.
When disaster strikes, girls are also more likely to enter child marriages, “which parents may see as a way of keeping their daughters safe in troubled times,” the report says.
Pre-existing gender inequalities also tend to affect girls in the aftermath of weather disasters. After the 2010 floods in Pakistan, a study of eight rural schools found 24 per cent of Grade 6 girls dropped out versus 6 per cent of boys.
Surveys in Ethiopia also found that boys were encouraged to eat more in times of food scarcity, the assumption being that boys need more energy whereas girls are “expected to be moderate/reserved reflecting a ‘womanly etiquette.
In the United States, although we have more sex equality than Pakistan and Ethiopia, and are better able to respond to flooding and drought, poverty is still feminized, particularly related to housing and property ownership, and US women are also vulnerable to a rise in rape and domestic violence during natural disasters. This is especially true if, due to a loss of housing, an abusive male re-enters the lives of his ex-wife/ girlfriend and their children.
For women worldwide, climate change exacerbates the feminization of poverty, and now that the United States is officially out of the Paris agreement, women will find their lives even more brutally altered by the chaos of not just the constant, everyday challenges of climate change – but by the rising ferocity of natural disasters.
Unfortunately, the United States is led by a government that doesn’t believe in climate change and doesn’t care about women, which is why this should be a top priority for American feminist and social justice warriors. All over the world, women are already fighting climate justice at the grassroots level. Yet the women in the developing world are hardly responsible for climate change, which is why feminists in the United States have an obligation to continue to fight against and stand up to the Trump administration’s grievous crime against humanity of denying climate change.