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‘Essential leaders’: why empowering women is key to tackling the climate crisis

Women are more likely to be impacted by the climate emergency than men – and they may also be our best hope in solving it, suggests a leading charity on International Women’s Day

Women are more likely to be impacted by the climate emergency than men – and they may also be our best hope in solving it, suggests a leading charity on International Women’s Day

Empowering women and girls is among the best hopes for tackling climate change, an international charity has said. 

On International Women’s Day, ActionAid – which works with the poorest women and girls in the world – highlighted its project in Cambodia that trains female leaders to help their communities deal with flooding and other issues caused by rising temperatures.

The charity’s Women’s Champion initiative helps villages and farms protect themselves by setting up early warning systems, building defences and planting protective mangrove barriers. 

Research shows that women and girls are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Figures from the UN show that 70 per cent of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty are women and that 80 per cent of people displaced by climate change are women. 

Women in developing countries tend to work in industries that are vulnerable to extreme weather, such as farming and fishing. They also have less access to education than their male counterparts, as well as worse access to basic human rights such as being able to move freely or buy land. 

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Few women are taught skills such as how to swim or to climb trees, and as a result, more women and girls tend to die in disasters too, ActionAid has found. 

Despite this, women and girls are often left out of decision-making when it comes to climate change.

ActionAid’s new campaign, She is the Answer, highlights why women must no longer be excluded from conversations as communities and nations make plans to deal with the impact of climate change.

And it isn’t alone in positing women’s empowerment as a key potential solution. Among 76 solutions for curbing global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, empowering women and girls in developing countries ranked second on a report by Project Drawdown, a US not-for-profit that researches the most effective ways to reduce planet-warming emissions. 

The organisation estimates that girls’ education and family planning would reduce carbon by 85 gigatons by 2050.

Studies show that where women have higher social and political status, their countries have 12 per cent lower carbon dioxide emissions. 

“We know that women and girls are essential leaders in helping their communities develop resilience to climate change,” said Rachid Boumnijel, head of humanitarian programmes at ActionAid UK, “ and that when women are empowered to make decisions in an emergency response, their whole community recovers faster.”

Much of the land in Cambodia is a floodplain within the basin of the Mekong River. Overflowing waterways and flooding are commonplace during the monsoon season. However, factors connected to climate change – such as rising sea levels, unpredictable seasons and erratic rainfall – have been contributing to more intense storms, floods and droughts. 

Varou Mat is a Women's Champion and teaches at a community nursery in Kampot province, Cambodia. Image: Cindy Liu/ActionAid

Extreme weather is causing depleted fish stocks and crop failures, pushing families who rely solely on fishing and farming for food and income deeper into poverty.  

Varou Mat is a nursery school assistant in Cambodia. She is married to a fisherman and explained that most families in the community rely on fishing for their livelihoods.

“If fishing is suspended, there’s no income or jobs,” she said. “They have no choice but to force their children to drop out of school to work in the factory to earn some money.” 

Varou Mat has been trained as a Women’s Champion and is helping to create floating schools, spreading knowledge of sustainable farming practices and educating the next generation in new livelihoods that are less likely to be impacted by climate change. 

Since becoming a champion, Varou Mat has been encouraging her fellow villagers to pursue other sources of food and income, such as growing their own vegetables and fruit trees, as well as raising chickens. 

We know that when women are empowered to make decisions in an emergency response, their whole community recovers faster.

“I explain to them the benefits, as it costs us nothing. We can use leftover rice as food for the chickens, for example.”  

Varou Mat has also demanded that the local authorities upgrade the village’s road and sewage system to withstand floods more effectively. 

She says that because of the Women’s Champion network, during local meetings women now feel, “brave to speak up about their problems, their needs and what they want”. 

Hok, 35, is a farmer and a Women’s Champion living in Pursat province, Cambodia. Image: Cindy Liu/ActionAid

Challenging patriarchal structures

Samphy Eng from ActionAid Cambodia, who works with the Women’s Champions, said the project has given her “hope” and she hopes the network will be expanded.

“It is so important that we challenge traditional patriarchal structures – we must champion women leaders and make sure their voices are heard so that women and girls are no longer marginalised,” Eng said. “Only then can communities truly thrive in our new world altered by climate change.”

Even in the UK, women can be excluded from the climate conversation. The UN’s annual climate change conference COP26 is being hosted in Glasgow this November but it has already been subject to criticism after it was revealed that only three of the UK’s 12-strong team are women. 

Boumnijel said it is imperative that women and girls everywhere are included, empowered and listened to. 

“We can only build truly resilient communities when the most marginalised women and girls are reached and represented. 

“Ultimately, climate justice means gender justice. So let’s continue challenging the status quo – at all levels – and help empower more women to become powerful agents of change.”

This article is published in partnership with ActionAid to help raise awareness of their new campaign, She Is The Answer, which empowers women in Cambodia to have a voice in the face of the climate emergency.

Main image: Cindy Liu/ActionAid