The desperate need to talk climate change on International Women's Day

The desperate need to talk climate change on International Women’s Day

If you care about gender equality, then you need to care about climate change and consider its impact on women and girls internationally.

And you need to support the young women who are putting activism on the issue on their priority list, along with the related push for equality and human rights.

More than half of girls aged 12 to 25 (53 per cent) nominated climate change as their number one concern facing society, according to Plan International’s She Has A Plan research.

Fifty three per cent again said climate change is the biggest issue facing their personal futures.

They are right to be concerned. Climate change is already and will continue to have a disproportionate impact on girls. The key challenges are: displacement, food insecurity, gender-based violence and child marriage.

There is a link between environmental degradation and gender-based violence, outlined clearly in the massive, two year study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), published last month. A link that could significantly undo the gains made on gender equality internationally, particularly when it comes to keeping girls in school and addressing child marriage.

It’s also a link that’s largely ignored and overlooked, not only in national and international strategies (including international agreements) for addressing climate change, but also when it comes to discussions on women’s empowerment — the topic has been notably absent in many International Women’s Day events and discussions this past week.

Plan International is one organisation that has been doing an excellent job in highlighting the issue, particularly through its research and ambassador efforts, aiming to elevate the concerns and leadership of young women.

Plan’s 2019 Climate Change Threatens Girls’ Rights report found that 80 per cent of the 60 million people displaced by climate-related disasters each year are women and girls. Girls from marginalised communities in the least developed countries are the worst hit — often being the first to drop out of school to help their families raise money, the first to care for sick relates and take on more domestic duties, and the first to face a heightened risk of exploitation and abuse.

Plan’s research also found that in Africa and Asia, girls have a key role in agriculture and food security, yet are more likely to suffer from undernourishment than boys and men, especially in areas where feeding customs favour boys and men. We’ve already seen in Southern Africa widespread drought and flash flooding leading to the UN warning that more than 14 million people are currently facing acute hunger.

There’s also evidence to show climate change leads to an increase in gender based violence and child marriage. Girls may face more vulnerable journeys to collect food and water during periods of food insecurity and following a natural disaster. Child marriage has already increased in a number of areas globally as girls are used to secure food for their families, with Plan noting an estimated 16 per cent increase of those marrying under the age of 18 in Mozambique, following its devastating drought, while reports suggest 30 to 40 per cent of child marriages in Malawi are a result of climate-related impacts. Plan also issues concerns about girls being exploited in a desperate bit to acquire food and money.

So what are governments doing to protect girls internationally? 

Not much, according to Plan’s Girls Rights in Climate Strategies report. It found that just three of 160 national plans for meeting agreed global targets on emissions and adaption actually mention girls, along with just 13 National Climate Adaption Plans.

And while 43 per cent of countries referenced women or gender in these plans, it’s usually in the context of women being vulnerable, rather than regarding their contribution to climate change mitigation or adaption. Meanwhile, the opportunity to invest in girls’ education to help meet some of these future challenges is not being considered in the context of climate strategy.

This can change. This is a subject needing a lot of noise this International Women’s Day, and every day following.

They are issues that need to be top of mind, even in the face of other confronting and urgent matters, like the global impact of a major pandemic, and discussed despite major IWD events being cancelled due to Covid-19 fears.

We shouldn’t be relying on girls and young women to tell the story or express their outrage — but so far it’s been one of the most effective strategies we’ve seen for getting global leaders to wake up on climate change, with Greta Thunberg’s school strikes being the obvious case in point.

Indeed, a number of Plan’s 2020 Youth Ambassadors are already passionately speaking out.

Eighteen year old Syrian-Australian Maya (pictured above), a podcaster from Melbourne, says that it’s clear leaders have failed to property address the consequences of climate change.

“As a young person, I want my future to be safe, to be prosperous, but most important, to be liveable,” she says.

“The leaders of today have simply hid under the rug the irreversible, catastrophic damage that climate change is and will do to our world and our future. They have chosen to prioritise what’s most important to them, in place of the future that their children or grandchildren might have. Climate change is a current issue that they need to address now more than ever.”

Tino, a 19 year old Zimbabwean-Australian activist from Melbourne, who is studying engineering, is also desperate to see leadership on the matter.

“Leaders should be addressing the major impact of climate change on women and girls. Climate change brings an increased strain on young girls’ opportunities, especially in terms of education and creating financial freedom.

“Child marriage is more prominent as people are simply desperate to survive. We need to be making solutions for the future instead of ignoring the issue”

Imogen, an 18 year old who plans on pursuing a career in law, says every thing comes back to the climate crisis, given its impact on every other part her life and activism.

“As with any crisis, it will have and is having profound and detrimental impacts for marginalised groups (women and girls), communities in poverty and refugees, and our indigenous communities,” she says

“This means climate change must be discussed in our activist spaces and by our leaders, to properly consider how its effects combine with pre-existing power dynamics. Moving forward, our leaders have a responsibility to ensure that their people do not need to fear for their future, and to urgently protect it at all costs.”

Girls and young women have climate action on their minds this International Women’s Day. How about the rest of us? As we celebrate progress on gender equality, are we really aware of the threats to those achievements that are ahead?

You can read more on the nine activists selected for Plan International’s 2020 intake for its Youth Ambassador Series here. 

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