November 28, 2011—As the United Nations conference on climate change opens in South Africa, a new World Bank study shows that women, when fully empowered, can be an important force for change as countries and citizens grapple with the impacts of climate change and prepare to adapt to them.
World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development Rachel Kyte said a growing body of evidence shows that women tend to be disproportionately more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change compared to men. Because of their vulnerability—to more frequent and more extreme natural disasters like cyclones, floods, and droughts—it’s vital that women play a more central role in building their communities’ climate resilience.
“We are seeing time and time again that when women are empowered to play leadership roles within their communities, the whole community benefits from better preparedness for extreme weather events,” Kyte said. “It's smart economics, smart business, smart planning, and smart design to look at challenges with women’s realities in mind."
One example of this comes from Bangladesh. In 1991, Cyclone Gorky killed 140,000 people in that country. Deaths of women outnumbered deaths of men by a ratio of 14 to 1. Through the government’s intensive efforts to increase women’s involvement in preparedness—including providing women-only spaces in storm shelters and getting women more involved as community mobilizers—the number of deaths in a similar cyclone event in 2007, saw the gender gap in mortality rates shrink to 5:1.
“Now women are acting as powerful agents of change in Bangladesh,” Kyte said. “Women are getting the message out ahead of cyclones through early warning messages to other women in the community, encouraging them to use cyclone shelters. It’s not only had a dramatic effect in reducing the gender differential in those who are dying in cyclones, but it has also improved cyclone preparedness overall.”
In the paper, entitled “Gender and Climate Change: Three Things You Should Know”, the World Bank underscores the importance of gender equality for effective and equitable action on climate change.
The study refers to examples in India where poor women in drought-prone states like Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan have improved their social and economic opportunities through self-help groups that have linked together to increase their bargaining power. Over time, these institutional platforms that have grown up around improved livelihoods can be used to build climate resilience, including accessing advice for dealing with drought and building better watershed management structures.
The paper’s author, Lead Social Development Specialist Robin Mearns, says the key to ensuring gender equality is ensuring equal access to resources and opportunities for everyone.
“Women very often don’t enjoy the same rights or the same socio-economic status as men and that structural disadvantage means that they are often more vulnerable than men to theimpacts of the same climate or hazard events,” he said.
In developing countries, projects aimed at addressing climate change or improving energy access can have important benefits for women if gender considerations are factored into early planning.
For example, a new Bus Rapid Transit project in Lagos, Nigeria has helped cut carbon emissions in that city by 20 percent. A gender analysis undertaken ahead of the project highlighted the need for providing well-lit bus shelters and other safety measures for women to improve their likely use of the system. Now, women are significant users of public transport, improving their participation in the local economy.
The paper also highlights the important decisions that billions of women make every day that influence the amount of carbon that is released into the atmosphere. Women’s choices around cooking fuels, cooking technology and the foods to cook all have an important bearing on carbon emissions.
“Low-emissions development pathways can be more effective and more equitable where they are designed using a gender-informed approach,” said Mearns.