For decades we have mobilised across the world and have worked towards gender equality, and increasingly over the last few years to address climate injustice. However, both fights have often been waged separately with far too little attention given to the critical areas where they overlap.
This International Women’s Day puts a welcome spotlight on the common ground: on the ways in which climate change disproportionately impacts women and girls and on how advancing gender equality can empower women to take the lead in the fight for climate justice. In this complex landscape of intersecting vulnerabilities, education is a vital part of any effective solution.
Victims many times over: Climate and gender injustices
The gendered impact of climate change is not anecdotal. It is well documented and frankly, infuriating. The countries that contribute least to the problem shoulder the heaviest burden of the climate emergency, while the countries that created the problem and got rich in the process, can afford the luxury of a piecemeal response. Women and girls from marginalised backgrounds and in the poorest communities are the most vulnerable and feel the impact most acutely, not least because of the traditional gender roles they have been assigned since birth.
We are not short of examples. Floods often mean schools are either destroyed or become difficult to access. Longer journeys to school expose girls to sexual violence and harassment and often result in them dropping out. In times of climate-induced crises, such as a natural disaster, drought, or resource scarcity, girls are more likely than boys to be taken out of school to complete household chores like collecting water or taking care of siblings. Failing crops push families into poverty and many marry off their young daughters to have one less mouth to feed. Young brides become young mothers with little means to support their children and with no way of returning to their classrooms. Food insecurity disproportionately impacts pregnant women. In Malawi, it is estimated that 1.5 million girls are at risk of becoming child brides due to the impacts of extreme weather events caused by climate change. Impoverished girls and women are often forced into sex work in the aftermath of a natural disaster, as documented in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis in 2008. After the 2009 bushfires in Australia, there was an increase in domestic violence against women and children.
Natural disasters such as floods, fires, and hurricanes caused by climate change displace millions of people annually from their homes, and 80% of those displaced by the effects of climate change are women. This forced migration often places women in precarious, unsafe, and unstable conditions. Migrant women are more likely to face poverty and are less likely to receive a quality education. When displaced, women and girls face increased vulnerability to human trafficking and sexual assault in overcrowded shelters.
The interplay of climate factors and patriarchal social norms, such as male ownership of land and assets, result in a feminisation of poverty, with women and girls – especially the most marginalised, such as Indigenous, disabled and/or racialised women and girls - locked into a never-ending cycle of deprivation and hardship.
Harnessing the power of education for gender equality and climate action
How do we break this cycle? No matter how complex the solution, education – the greatest equaliser – is a fundamental part of it. The data shows that educated women and girls who are involved in decision-making are a formidable force for change. They help their families and communities build resilience to economic and climate shocks, they accelerate recovery from climate catastrophes and adaptation to the effects of climate change. They are an immense source of untapped human potential. Empowering women and girls, giving them a voice will make the difference between success or failure both in terms of achieving gender equality and achieving climate justice.
While we must invest in girls’ education, we must also transform education. In a time of climate emergency, quality climate education that is also gender-responsive is as essential as teaching reading and writing.
The Education International Manifesto on Climate Change Education for All outlines our profession’s vision of how we can truly harness the power of education in the fight against climate change. Quality climate education must be based on science. It must be taught across all levels of education and across all subjects, recognising and explaining the varied social impacts of the climate crisis, including its disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable groups, women and girls among them. Curricula must be gender-responsive and take an intersectional approach. Climate change education must foster critical thinking and civic engagement, empowering our students to consider just and sustainable alternatives, and take informed action in their communities and beyond.
To ensure a just transition to a green economy, our education systems must also be updated so that students are equipped with the skills they need for future careers in a sustainable world.
It is thus vital that all students, all girls everywhere have access to quality climate education.
Women and girls: the missing voices in leadership
Women and girls are too often not given a seat at the international, national, or local tables, despite being key leaders in the movement for climate justice, and oftentimes the first responders to climate disasters.
Last November at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, which was the most well-attended COP in history despite COVID-19 restrictions, the average country delegation comprised 65% men to 35% women, a regression compared to the three prior COPs. While gender balance at COP has become gradually less unequal - COP1 was 88% male to 12% female - this situation remains a stark example of the systematic silencing of women’s voices.
In a discussion with EI Deputy General Secretary, Haldis Holst, Vanessa Nakate, a young Ugandan climate activist, explained the critical links between women’s leadership, girls' education, and the climate emergency:
“We know that if women are left on the side when it comes to decisions that pertain to our living on and survival of this planet, then we are bound to fail...No team can play with just half of the players, in football or any other game. Women and girls constitute more than half of the world's population, [but] if it’s only men that are making decisions for our climate, then it’s just half of the team, and half of the team cannot win. That’s why it’s important to have women on board in these leadership places and one of the ways that we can make that happen is have more girls educated and more women empowered [through education].”
When girls and women fully enjoy their human right to quality education, and when they are included in decision making at all levels, their families and communities benefit.
It is time to centre an intersectional approach to the challenges of gender inequality, insufficient quality education, and the climate change emergency for a more equitable and sustainable tomorrow. Partnerships must be formed with traditionally marginalised groups including women for climate resilient development. Women and girls in all their diversity must have access to the resources and tools they need to live safely in an environmentally sustainable world, and to lead fulfilling lives.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.