I interviewed women from the Pacific about the climate crisis. This is what they told me

I interviewed women from the Pacific about the climate crisis. This is what they told me

Yasmin Poole

You probably heard the term ‘break the bias’ at some point around International Women’s Day. It was a theme put forward by InternationalWomensDay.com which, curiously, has no official connection to the day itself. 

Many did not realise that UN Women had proposed a different and powerful theme: ‘Changing Climates: Equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’. The theme recognises that the devastating effects of climate change is also worsening gender equality. It should have been front and centre in our national conversation.

Right now, women around the world are bearing the brunt of bigger and more frequent disasters, mass displacement and poverty. Climate change doesn’t just affect the climate. It’s a threat multiplier, deepening disadvantage across social, economic and political lines. 

But how exactly does climate change connect with gender inequality? This year, I had the privilege to learn from female leaders across the Pacific who I interviewed for the World Bank for International Women’s Day.

I asked these leaders – across health, education, business, and government – about their reflections on the idea of equality today for a sustainable tomorrow. There was a common thread across their answers: they had seen the problem with their own eyes. Climate change was worsening gender equality in their communities in real time.

18-year-old Ana Malia Felamaka from Tonga, a youth climate activist, started her advocacy after 2018’s Cyclone Gita ripped through the country, including her school. She was left to study in a classroom with half a roof for the rest of the school term. “From that point onwards, I was determined to create awareness and to play my role in the fight,” recalls Ana.

She isn’t alone. The Malala Fund estimates that four million girls will be pulled out of education because of climate disasters, including due to damage to schools.

The study finds that girls are often withdrawn from education during droughts or other crises to support their family. Vinzealhar Nen from Papua New Guinea, another youth climate activist, has seen boys encouraged to pursue education after disasters while girls are expected to remain in farming or work at the market to make ends meet. 

For Vinzealhar, the connection between climate change and gender inequality couldn’t be clearer. She tells me about a recent flood where boys were rescued first while girls had to wait for hours. “That’s the reality of gender inequality in communities,” Vinzealhar says.

Climate change also adds to the existing weight on women’s shoulders. In the Pacific, women often undertake fishing or farming to provide for their family. Dr Salome Taufa, a fisheries expert from Tonga, says that rising acidification and other problems means that women have to search further for food sources. Longer routes can be dangerous and time-consuming. Women bear these extra burdens while taking on the lion’s share of family responsibilities. 

Disasters increase violence too. In Vanuatu, two tropical cyclones in 2011 led to a 300% increase in domestic violence cases reported to a local women’s counselling centre. Climate change is deepening disadvantage and leaving women exposed to even greater gender-based harm.

The reality is, women’s lives cannot be separated from the global issues around us. Climate change and gender inequality are intertwined, not separate, and must be discussed together. Acknowledging this connection, alongside race, class and other areas of inequality, paints a clearer picture about who has the power and platform to change things – or keep them the same. 

The bottom line is that we urgently need a feminist response to deal with climate change. We are far from that. Scarily far. But one step forward is having women in the decision-making rooms, from local governments up to Parliament.

Mere Nailatikau, Fijian host of the Pacific Vosa podcast, emphasises that Indigenous women must be front and centre. “We miss out on [indigenous women’s] traditional knowledge when discussing solutions to climate change. Gender inequality silences women in all their diversity.”

The elephant in the room is that many of the harmful realities experienced by Pacific women are intensely influenced by far wealthier nations who could take climate action but refuse. These nations are empowered by global systems that reward consumption, not sustainability. 

International Women’s Day was a missed opportunity to hold that mirror up to ourselves, our organisations and decision makers who represent us. Yet while International Women’s Day comes and goes, climate change and gender inequality does not. Both are happening right now, and we can draw attention to it right now

Vinzealhar Nen’s advice for Pacific women is simple: talk. “The more you keep talking, the more people around us are aware of what’s happening. The more we bring life to the issues, the more the world will understand the reality of living in the Pacific during the climate crisis.”

Women, including Pacific women, are talking about the climate crisis. It’s on us to listen.

Read the interviews with women from across the Pacific.

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