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Women Bear the Brunt of Climate Crisis: Their Stories from the UN Conference in Bali

by Imelda V. Abaño

At the December UN conference in Bali, Indonesia, experts and concerned people alike discussed how poor women in developing countries bear the brunt of climate change in a wide range of ways. They have to walk to fetch water or wood for fuel and carry it back to the household. They have to work longer hours in the fields to till the soil, which has hardened due to severe drought, and yet they receive fewer benefits because of low wages and low crop production. And despite their efforts, they have little decision making power because in these areas, women are considered merely as housewives. In India, as one example, women have very little bargaining power when marketing their crops. When children or spouses fall ill from diseases, it is women who care for them. It is women who will do without or with less when food is scarce.

“Life has been hard, since heavy rains always wash away many of our crops and cause flooding in our village,” said Mariana Dau from a farming village in Sumatra, Indonesia who talked about how climate change has affected their family’s life and also their financial security.

Mariana, a housewife and a farmer with four little children, was sponsored by an Indonesian environment group so she could get to Bali during the December 3-13 UN conference to tell her story to the world’s leaders on the severe effects of climate change in her community. I interviewed her while she was there.

“Locusts have also attacked our fields and our entire crop has disappeared. We have noticed recently that when the temperature is above 34 degrees (93.2 degrees Fahrenheit), when it is much hotter than usual, there is more chance that locusts will come and we no longer get good yields,” 36-year-old Mariana said in a side event forum during the conference.

Mariana’s story is no different from those of women farmers in poor farming communities in the Philippines. Josefina Lagus, from the remote village of Benguet in the Northern Philippines, is a gaunt mother of five who looks at least a decade older than her 42 years. She too noted that when the rainy and drought seasons behave erratically, it affects their crop production.

“Our situation has gone from bad to worse. I can’t understand why. Sometimes our fields are flooded and sometimes we experience drought,” Josefina told me during an interview.

Josefina adds that in their community, a typical day begins at the break of dawn with women and sometimes children walking a considerable distance to fetch water using small buckets. They must walk even longer distances to collect firewood.

“Most women here are silently bearing the brunt of changing climate conditions. But we pray that these problems will be addressed by our government and other agencies concerned for the sake of our children,” Josefina said.

Meanwhile, 65-year-old Myridula Kadramma, from a remote village in Bangalore, whom I interviewed while on a trip to India with other journalists, said she and her two daughters spend almost five hours a day collecting fuel for firewood and fetching water as they have no access to an electricity grid and there is no potable water in their community.

“This is a really poor community and we have no access whatsoever to electricity and water. We have to walk long distances to get them,” Myridula said during my visit to their community in India last month. “When it is raining hard we cannot go out and collect firewood for cooking. When the sun is high, it is really hot [so] that we cannot stand it anymore. That’s how we suffer, aside from poverty.”

Myridula admits that old age has made her body fragile, which does not permit her to go with her daughters any more to gather their needs. She said she is now confined to staying inside the house to look after her grandchildren.

“I am not as strong as before so [I] just stay here inside the house and let my children look after firewood and fetch water. I just hope that we can adapt to the changing environment so it will not be harder for us to live,” Myridula said emotionally.

Even though these three women come from different parts of the world, the painfully similar experiences of Mariana, Josefina and Myridula are living examples that women indeed are already bearing a greater burden of day to day activities than they have before because of climate change.

Women Support Women in Making Policy

Back in Bali, a global network of women’s groups pointed out that “there will be no climate justice without gender justice.”

During the UN climate change conference over 10,000 delegates from 187 countries agreed on a road map for negotiations by 2009. Acting Coordinator Ulrike Roehr of the Gender and Climate Change Network said in a side event that because of the disproportionate effects of climate change on women, priority should be put on community based programs, including gender sensitive approaches that will empower women to make what changes they can to offset their newly more difficult situation.

“We need to question the dominant perspective focusing mainly on technologies and markets, and put caring and justice at the centre of the measures and mechanisms,” Roehr said at one of the conference events.

She said women throughout the world have an important role to play in taking action on climate change, as leaders in community natural resource management, as catalysts of change, as innovators, farmers and caretakers of families.

While UN discussions to date have seldom mentioned gender, MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization, said that a gender analysis is vital to the creation of policies that will meet the twin challenges of controlling climate change while advancing human development.

“We see evidence all around us that the threat of climate change is not just looming—it is already here. People confronting poverty in developing countries, the majority of whom are women, already bear the brunt of climate change effects, from reduced agricultural capacities to intensifying natural disasters,” Yifat Susskind, MADRE Communications Director, said in a statement distributed to journalists during the conference.

Susskind said their organization joined other women’s human rights advocates in Bali to ensure that the “role of women in confronting climate change is recognized.”

Winnie Byanyima, Director of the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Team added an additional perspective: she commented that because women comprise the majority of the world’s poor, that amplifies the destructive impact climate change has on women. From New Orleans to Bangladesh, more women die and suffer from disasters.

“As women have specialized skills, they can offer invaluable contributions to our current climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. To harness this largely untapped knowledge and expertise, we must develop national capacity to include women in decision-making stages of policy development on climate change response,” said Byanyima in a statement.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s study on gender and climate change, there is decisive evidence that the gender differences in deaths during natural disasters are directly linked to women’s economic and social rights. In societies that are more inequitable, men are more likely to receive preferential treatment in rescue efforts. Women on the other hand are likely to suffer more from shortages of food and other resources in the aftermath of disasters.

Women made up 90% of the 140,000 people killed in the 1991 cyclone disaster in Bangladesh. During Hurricane Katrina in the USA, African-American women faced greater obstacles to survival than did the men in their community.

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said that not only do indigenous women suffer from the great impact of climate change in their lives, but they are also marginalized in the discussions about climate change.

“As we feel the effects of climate change, more and more women, especially indigenous women in the far flung communities, are the hardest hit. So we must do something about this issue,” Corpuz told me during an interview. “It’s time to act and deal with the climate change mitigation and adaptation and include women’s welfare in the discussions.”

About the Author

Imelda Visaya-Abaño, began her journalism career in 1998 as a reporter at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading daily newspaper in the Philippines. Her areas of interest are women and children’s issues, science, environment, health, agriculture and education.

In 2002, Ms. Abaño was honored as the Asian Winner of the Global REUTERS-IUCN Media Awards on Environmental Reporting.

Ms. Abaño vows to continue serving her community through balanced news and fearless views. She believes in better journalism for better communities.

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