By Nishka Kapoor, National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, University Hyderabad

A meeting of COP 26 was recently held in Glasgow, United Kingdom. The meeting focused on the ways to combat climate change and steps that must be taken to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The other major issue raised at COP 26 was the issue of gender inequalities and the impact of the climate crisis on women. On November 9, 2021, ‘Gender Day’ was celebrated at COP 26, focusing on the steps required to address the gender inequalities faced by women as a result of climate change, as well as to mitigate arbitrary pay and working hours policies for women, and to make progressive changes in this aspect of climate change.

Impact of the climate crisis on women

Reports by the United Nations have found that women are majorly affected by the severity of climate change, and many of them, despite doing the same amount of work as men, are not paid equally to their male counterparts. It was found that the majority of households in rural areas are headed by women working in the area of food production, meaning they are the breadwinner of the house but are denied the ownership of land.

Data shows that a large percentage of women from rural areas and poor communities are dependent on their environment, agricultural activities, and natural resources for their livelihood. In several reports by the United Nations, it was found that about 80% of those displaced due to climate emergencies were women and 70% of women live in poverty, which demonstrates how women are disproportionately affected by climate change. It was observed that this disparity exists because women are not sufficiently represented within the decision-making processes relating to the effects of climate change and ways to tackle them. The lack of representation of women is one of the major causes of increased violence against women and their displacement due to climate change in large numbers.

These are some of the inequalities that women face because of the lack of education opportunities they have. Giving women equal opportunities to educate themselves would be a progressive step in increasing the representation of women in leadership positions and decision-making panels, spaces in which they are often neglected. Giving women the equal right to education would help them to contribute to knowledge and debates in the arena of climate change, which has affected them the most.

These are some of the major factors that have hindered the achievement of the targeted Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030, it majorly affects SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities), and SDG 13 (Climate Action), because the most important thing to achieve SDGs is to include everyone in the process of achieving it equally, but that is not being implemented properly. Without sufficient educational opportunities, women are excluded from almost every aspect of society, and denied the ability to contribute to societal decisions. As a consequence, they are unable to operationalise their rights, which frequently results in exploitation, abuse and violence against them.

Need for a Feminist Approach to Solve the issue of climate change on women

Women residing in rural areas are majorly affected by the deterioration of the climate because they are frequently involved in agricultural and fisheries activities. Even though these women play a significant role in achieving sustainable development goals, they often face discrimination and abuse due to financial loss and low household income. Due to these factors, violence against women and girls have increased, with many families feeling forced to “compensate” for their economic loss by selling their daughters for money, with child marriages increasing over time.

Climate change also has effects on the health of women in rural areas, such as during the time of the natural disaster or shortage of food grains. Major incidents sometimes even lead to major consequences resulting in the death of women with physical disabilities, elderly women, and in cases of forced and child marriages, unplanned pregnancies violate the reproductive rights of women and affect their mental and physical health. Land ownership and economic disparity also directly affect the health of women because  men frequently control household finances and women have no choice but to depend on them economically.

Women are disproportionally placed in vulnerable situations by the climate crisis because they are often denied their representation in the decision-making process related to climate change, despite this crisis affecting them disproportionately. The failure to represent women effectively has a significant impact, because it perpetuates stereotypes about women who are expected to do household chores and fulfil caregiving roles, which in many cases forces women to leave their education and jobs, and become economically and socially dependent on men.

Their lack of representation in the decision-making process has been explored by many legal feminist thinkers such as Margaret Davies and Carol Smart. Margaret Davies, in her piece Asking the Law Question, explained the overrepresentation of men in the decision-making process has the effect of suppressing the ideas of women. This is something which can also be seen during the effects of climate change, where women are the most affected. Due to their lack of representation, their contributions have historically been suppressed, which results in them being disproportionately discriminated against. Similarly, Carol Smart in her piece, Feminism and the Power of Law, explained how law becomes biased towards men and male ways of approaching problems. She discussed how law sometimes rejects other ways of thinking and stays rigid in different social and cultural contexts, which results in discrimination against some sections of society. This can be seen during the climate crisis, where women are often treated as inferior and discriminated against because laws were not incorporated with their inputs and ideas and focused instead on male ways of thinking.

It is important to solve these issues by firstly, educating women about their basic rights, and ensuring that women can use those in response to discrimination. Secondly, the decision-making process should be made more inclusive by including women and their ideas, as they are the ones disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. Lastly, women’s land ownership and employment rights must be strengthened, as this would help women – especially those in rural areas – strive towards economic and social independence.