The visible impacts of climate change in Africa — deforestation, flooding, drought, soil erosion, coastal storms and changing weather patterns — are striking, but so is its impact on women.
In sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the drylands and the Sahel region, where climate change is aggravating poverty, women are disproportionately affected because of their close connections to the environment. In addition to their involvement in agriculture, rural women are responsible for household chores, particularly the fetching of water and energy sources, including charcoal and firewood, for cooking and heating.
Experts say that climate change most affects those who depend mainly on natural resources and whose livelihoods are climate sensitive—many are poor farming women. According to a 2015 report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), about two-thirds of the female workforce in developing countries is involved in agricultural labour, and that number is higher in Africa’s rural areas.
Natural resources are becoming ever scarcer due to climate change, which presents additional challenges for women. For instance, in rural Senegal rainy seasons are shorter than before and there’s been a 35% decline in total rainfall over the last two decades. As a consequence, women walk longer distances to fetch drinking, cooking and washing water, according to a study by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), a group that promotes gender equality and the integrity of the environment.
Climate change affects African women in many other ways. Though they make regular use of natural resources, they have few if any ownership rights. In Mali, where over 50% of women are involved in agriculture, just 5% are titled landholders, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Even in countries that are faring relatively well economically, such as Botswana and Cape Verde, only 30% of women legally own land although around 50% are involved in agriculture.
Asa Torkelsson, economic empowerment adviser at the UN Women regional office for eastern and southern Africa, says women who go in search of water and firewood often find themselves vulnerable in other ways.
But just as women are disproportionately affected by climate impacts, they also play crucial roles in preventing climate change, at least in small ways, and even helping their communities adapt to it.
“Women are actually essential game changers as actors and leaders in climate change,” explains Rahel Steinbach, programme officer at the UNEP’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics.
Ms. Steinbach adds that women can bring energy-efficient and renewable energy sources closer to those who need them through entrepreneurship, a goal that’s being promoted through a new UN Women and UNEP initiative called Women’s Entrepreneurship for Sustainable Development.
The programme will be rolled out globally but will start in six countries, two of them in Africa: Morocco and Senegal. Other countries are Bolivia, India, Indonesia, and Myanmar. It will train women on sustainable energy technologies and on accessing finance for women entrepreneurs.
Find out more about the programme and other similar initiatives here here