How climate change disproportionately impacts women of colour across the globe

Climate change and global warming have a disproportionate impact on half the world’s population, and women bear the brunt of inequitable policies on matters of the environment worldwide.

By Mashael Shah

The past year saw some of the most devastating climate catastrophes across the globe, from floods in Pakistan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Brazil to droughts in Somalia, Spain, Kenya, China, Ethiopia, Europe and the United States. While climate change affects the entire world, the impact is borne disproportionately along the lines of gender, race, and class.

“The places with the least level of economic development are certainly in line to feel the impacts with the greatest degree, partially just due to their geographic fate — or their location — but more so based on the socio-economic and governance factors,” Niall Smith, an analyst of regional climate change vulnerability, told TIME.

Climate change is the “most far-reaching manifestation of white privilege and class privilege to face humankind,” writes Cynthia D. Moe Lobeda, ethics professor with Seattle University’s School of Theology. Published in Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics (Spring-Summer 2016), her essay ‘Climate Change as Climate Debt: Forging a Just Future‘ points out how climate change is wreaking havoc on impoverished people, who also are disproportionately people of colour.

Women of colour — particularly those in the global south — are perhaps at greatest risk.

The floods in Pakistan recently left eight million people displaced by what United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called a “monsoon on steroids.” The floods left more than 400,000 pregnant women homeless and without access to medical resources.

Another problem impacting flood-affected women across Pakistan is the surge in gender-based violence, something that women across the world widely face during times of calamity. UN Women notes that increased anxiety, fear, and loss of livelihood lead to an increase in violence against women and girls, especially from intimate partners and male family members.

The report states that cases of harassment and sexual violence are also reported, often fueled by disputes over food and other essential items. The rise in food insecurity places young girls, in particular, at higher risk of violence, including sexual exploitation and forced marriage, in exchange for money to feed their families.

Women taming wildfires in Darmar village, in the hills of Kumaon, Uttarakhand, India, 2021 (Photo: Ria Gupta / eShe)

Instances of such gender-based violence are not just limited to Pakistan. Researchers say the grind of environmental degradation and climate change is driving considerable violence against indigenous women in Papua New Guinea. Professor Szilvia Csevar, with The Hague University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands, says that climate catastrophes, coupled with preexisting socio-politico problems, are locking indigenous women into repeat cycles of violence, marginalisation, and isolation. The women of Puerto Rico, for example, faced a comparable uptick in domestic violence after Hurricane Maria.

Climate change-related catastrophes also exacerbate oppression already faced by women of colour – around the world, from Pakistan to Puerto Rico or Cameroon to New Orleans. Such catastrophes force men to migrate from rural areas to urban centres  in search of work, leaving women behind in charge of the land, but without “the respective legal rights or social authority” to safely run it, the Bonn Climate Change Conference noted in June 2022.

Women of colour living in the global north fare little better. Centuries of segregation and redlining have squeezed Black Americans into low-lying, flood-prone areas, making them more vulnerable to hurricanes. More than half of Black people in the United States live in the South, at risk of stronger climate-related hurricanes and increased flooding.

Naomi Michelson, a student at Washington University in St. Louis predicts that Black women will face a unique set of ailments due to the climate crisis. Studies suggest high temperatures contribute to an increase in sex-related crimes, while the historical hyper-sexualisation of Black girls and women could make “them most vulnerable to heat-related sexual violence and intimate partner violence,” in addition to subsequent STD-related illness.

Other studies claim rising temperatures and air pollution exacerbate pregnancy complications, including preterm birth and low-birth weight.

According to a Cambridge University report indigenous people in the global north, including communities in the U.S. and the Canadian Arctic, greatly suffer the consequences of climate change. And within indigenous communities, women face additional burdens because of increased ‘reproductive labour’ like maintaining family and community cohesion, particularly when storms displace island communities, forcing their relocation to the mainland.

Critics say countermeasures to the incoming legion of race and gender-related damage should include financial and rehabilitative reparations, particularly from industrial countries responsible for the most carbon emissions. International institutions should focus their funding on women of colour, particularly in low-income, developing regions.

Women of colour also need to be actively recruited to higher-ranking positions to better influence policy in international and local fora. There were only seven women among the total of 110 world leaders at the UNFCCC’s 27th Conference of the Parties. Analyses of the participant list showed less than 34 percent of country negotiation staff were female, with some teams consisting of more than 90 percent male members.

These skewed numbers are a criminal irony, particularly since women of colour are on the frontline of grassroots movements against climate change.

Mashael Shah is a writer, editor and aspiring journalist in Karachi, Pakistan.

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature, published in collaboration with The Lighthouse | Black Girl Projects.

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