Climate Change and Equality for Women and Girls

07 March 2022

Dr Katherine Kennet, the College's Social Prescribing Lead, joined us for International Women's Day to discuss the climate crisis and the direct and negative effect this has on women and girls, especially those living in the Global South. Katherine talks on both the economic and mental health aspects of climate change and of course, what we can do in our own lives to aid the crisis.


Ella Marchant:

Today we're going to talk about "gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow" for International Women's Day, which coming up on the eighth of March. And when I first saw this theme, I felt like I was really clueless to how, you know, the climate crisis has affected women, I couldn't quite grasp how it was more damaging for women. And I guess having a little chat with you really educated me about it.

Dr Katherine Kennet:  

Yeah, so the climate crisis is one of all sorts of things come into the crisis, climate crisis, mental health is one. I could talk about that for hours. But equality is another and gender equality, particularly. So, the climate has a massively disruptrive - the climate crisis - has a massively disproportionate effect on women and girls. And we can go into a little bit about why that is on this podcast today. But essentially, one of the, I think, one of the most shocking figures is that 80% of climate refugees, that's people displaced from their home, as a result of the climate emergency, are women and girls - which is shocking is absolutely shocking. And it just, I think, highlights in one statistic, why and how this is a gender issue.


How has that happened that climate refugees are more likely much more likely to be women than men?


It's for a whole host of reasons. And I think we can go into, just so many reasons, it really comes down to I guess, equality, access to resources, and also the women and girls place in society, for example, women and girls are much less likely to survive a natural disaster. That's an extreme weather events, we know they're happening more and more with climate change.

And if you've read the IPCC report, the most recent report on the effects of climate change, even if we keep to the hugely optimistic 1.5 degrees of warming, which at the moment, I think looks unlikely, then we're going to have devastatingly large numbers of increases in terms of extreme weather events. So, the numbers of extreme weather events are going to go up, even if we keep to the most optimistic targets on climate change. And if more women and girls are dying than men, then that's shocking. Now, the reason for that, really interestingly, can be negated when economic and social status is equated for so essentially, in groups of people, where women and men have equal status, equal access to resources, of political, social, economic rights that equal, then women and men die in equal numbers and natural disasters. But in most of the world, if not all of the world, that's not the case.

So, what we see is that women and girls have fewer, I mean, there's so many factors, but they have fewer accesses to resources, predominantly, particularly in the Global South. In the developing world, women's roles are one of caring, and acts of looking after the home of acquiring fuel, food, water, and all of those things make them much, much more vulnerable to climate change. So, there's a natural disaster, and you haven't been privileged enough to have the education, even basic reading, to be able to understand what to do in that situation, you're automatically more risk. If you have more caring roles, if you're looking after elderly relatives, young people, anybody who's unwell. And of course, you've got people who get more unwell as the climate emergency develops those with that disease, such as asthma, and things like that will be exacerbated by the climate emergency. So, all these things pay for women at a much they're much less mobile are much less likely to flee, and to flee quickly, or to see the signs that they need to move earlier. And that's not to do with women intrinsically having fewer resources, that societal and economic pressures that are put in place, that mean that women are less likely to survive these events.

And I think what's really interesting is that women aren't being represented in making the decision, the decisions for leadership and communities and globally, women are massively underrepresented. So, if we're thinking about how to manage the climate emergency, what we should be doing, we have a group that's hugely more vulnerable than women and girls to the effects of climate change. But they're not having a seat at the table in the same in the right proportions. They're not being represented in the right proportions, they're not able to make those decisions. We have decisions being made about the most vulnerable group and they're underrepresented in the decision making process.


The socio-economic status of women is also deeply affected by climate change, because most of the world's poorest are women. So, women are being cut off from, you know, basically achieving as much as their counterpart. And this negatively affects them when there is a natural disaster or you know, I mean, it's not really natural because it's been created by us in a way. When climate change strikes, it strikes in the world's poorest which happens to be women, people with mental health needs, people with disabilities, would there be a way that we can hugely restructure these communities?


Yeah, it's a really interesting question. So absolutely. There's 1.2 billion people who are technically hungry in the world. 70% of those are women and girls. So again, it's hugely disproportionate women and girls are far more likely to be hungry than men. And of the world's poor those living below the poverty line 70% of the world's poor are women and girls. So again, hugely, over represented in poverty, women and girls are much more likely to be poor, and much more likely to be hungry. And that makes them much more vulnerable to climate change. Of course, mental health, mental health comes into all this? Well, as we've discussed in a previous podcast, mental health is puts people in vulnerable position. And if you're more vulnerable, you're more vulnerable to climate change. Much like with COVID, we see that those who have fewer resources, who are more vulnerable, are more vulnerable in most settings, COVID included, and in climate change.

So, to answer your question, how can we restructure societies? Well, I think it really helps to understand how many societies are structured. In societies where women and girls are predominantly poorer, the Global South, or what used to be called developing countries, the role of women and girls is often to do things like gather fuel, to provide food and to provide water. So, to do those things, they have to do that before they can engage in things like education, engage in politics, anything that we would consider part of the human rights and also able to help them educate themselves, but also be a part of this conversation be part of how to get their voices heard.

In response to the planning and the response for climate and ecological emergency, which is what we're talking about. What ends up happening is in many communities, as deforestation happens, for example, and wildfires, wood, for example, is further from rural dwellings, that means that women and girls are having to spend more of their day more of their time, walking further, to get fuel to run the household. And as I say, often, that is a woman's role in many societies, or many rural, poorer societies in the global south. So, then you have women who are spending up to 20 hours a week doing this, consider basic tasks is fundamental task to get fuel for heating, you know, basic, caring roles that again, fall to women. So, women and girls are walking further, that leaves a lot less time for doing other things, like engaging in politics, like attending school, or other forms of learning. And it's also makes them really vulnerable.

Women are at far more risk of sexual violence or other violence, when they're walking further, their walking hours from home, it puts them at physical harm having to deal with that level of manual labour sometimes. And that's really, you know, has a massive, devastating impact with their ability to free up time to do other things.

The same thing with water, water scarcity, or contaminated water is a massive issue. With climate change and biodiversity loss, which we see as two sides of the same thing, have a big impact on water, so water is less available and more contaminated, then again, that takes more time for women and girls to obtain the water for the family to use. And again, that has less impact. That means that there's less time for them to have time to engage in political discussion and education and other things we need to help here the women's voice when we're making these decisions. So, there's some really quite fundamental things here. And it's not about everything. It's not about restructuring communities. I think that'd be very harmful to go in to communities that we're not part of, and say you're doing this wrong, we need to be doing is finding ways to work with women and girls, to hear their voice about what is happening, and how to help them. So they can have more of a voice. And that's about being flexible. That's about providing finance initiatives as a global response to this, that are flexible enough to engage with women and girls so that they can use them.

They can have it as an independent, they can help discussion. And it's about using not just women and girl's voices. It's also indigenous peoples who have a huge amount of knowledge about the natural world that's been lost, often hearing about people in communities and trying to influence policy that's affecting the climate and ecological emergency. But from those people who are on the frontlines, effectively, who are already feeling the really devastating impacts of climate change.


So, essentially, women are engaging so heavily in household chores and maintaining the family. They're missing out on education and the ability to gain wealth.


Yeah, absolutely. I think also is the worst thing that in the developing world, the majority of those involved in agriculture are women. So, women in rural poorer communities in the Global South, tend to be the ones who are farmers, and it's often subsistence farming. So, it's farming for them to feed their families, and often the excess is sold. And that is the source of income as well as the way to feed the family. In many African countries, over 90% of those engaged in agriculture are women. 45 to 80%, and that's a large amount, that's what the UN quote, but 45 to 80%, of all food production in developing countries is by women.

So, women make up the majority of the global poor, but they're also making up the majority of the global south farmers. And again, we're talking low level, in terms of production, we're talking about small amounts here, we're not talking about mass industry farming. The majority of farmers in the developing world are women growing food for their family and a bit extra to provide an income for their family. And what that means as climate change develops, and having more drought, it's having a massive devastating impact on farming, and agriculture.

There was well, as what you were just saying earlier, about women spending so much more time on caring and household responsibilities. Also the financial aspect, the income is being devastated both by climate change, but also biodiversity loss, because as we have that biodiversity loss, it has big impacts on soil and land-use. So, what happens is, for example, if you're taking away a lot of the biodiversity and area, it can make it much more prone to flooding to droughts, and then you it makes it much harder to farm. It's not just about the sort of responsibility in the home, it's also about the way the economic landscape is set up, puts women at much higher vulnerability for the devastating impacts of climate change.


It's quite overwhelming isn't it?


It is, and actually we haven't spoken about one of the biggest things, which is migration. Would it be okay to spend a few minutes talking about that?


I'd love to speak about migration, could you just give like a quick definition of what you mean by migration and what it means in terms of women and girls.


Migration as a result of climate change is a massive issue. What happens is we have these extreme weather events that we know are becoming more and more frequent. And as I said earlier, even in the most optimistic of forecasts for the climate, we're going to have a lot more devastating extreme weather events, things like cyclone storms, droughts, wildfires, and so on. What can happen is when an area is devastated, people have to move, they have to migrate, that can either be internal within a country. For example, moving from a rural area, to an urban area, or it can be international, which is far more dramatic.

But what can happen with those instances is people are far more at risk for all sorts of things. When you move even internally, within a country, there's an awful lot of non-economic losses, as we call them. A loss of sense of identity, you lose your community, you might if, for example, if you're a woman with caring responsibilities, you might lose a flexible work pattern, for example, that works around your caring duties. You might also lose somebody who's helping you with child care or care for elderly relatives, for example, or those with health needs.

So, you're losing your entire support network often. And quite commonly, people moving from rural areas to urban, moving to more informal dwellings, then possibly slums or something like that. That comes with a whole host of issues, all that put you at far increased risk of poor mental health, as well as difficulty socio-economically. You might struggle to get income, if you're in a new area, that kind of thing. Now, as well as that you have the risk of having to move internationally.

We're talking about, for example, moving refuge to refugee camps because of climate disasters, climate fueled wars, for example, where areas are becoming devastated. You're having a lot of people who are moving from one area to another, and living in refugee camps, because either directly or indirectly, of climate emergency. Now, what happened particularly to women and girls is in areas like refugee camps or displaced people's camps, women and girls are massively increased risk from all sorts of things. One is from sexual violence.

When I was doing my Global Health BSC as part of my medical degree, I remember we were learning about the displaced people's camps, for I can't remember now, but it was one of the natural disasters that had just happened. This is about 10 years ago. And we were talking about with the aid organisation about how they plan their refugee camp. And initially, they'd all plan to have toilets at the edge of the camp, the idea being that massively increased risk of waterborne diseases, things such as cholera that could be life threatening and that kind of setting and they wanted to have their toilets understandably, as far away as possible, and where people were eating and drinking to keep the water clean.

But what happened was there was a massive rise in sexual violence because in the night when it was dark, women would move on and the girls would move by themselves from an area of high population with lots of people around the edge of the camp really couldn't be seen. So, women and girls are a huge risk of sexual violence in those scenarios.

Also, if you think about it, maternity care, you're at a much higher risk if you're displaced when you're pregnant, or you're close to labour and you have a new baby, because you have a caring role, and you're less mobile, and you're more vulnerable, in terms of health, generally. And all these things are harder to access if you're in displaced person, or even if you're just in a new place where you don't have the support network. And you don't know, I didn't know if you didn't know the language, or you don't have people around you to support with those things. So actually, women are at a much higher risk, men are at risk in those situations, too. But I think women are recognised by the UN and internationally as being at far higher risk, from climate change and biodiversity loss or migration than others.


And just to put it into context, how, because I wouldn't know how big a refugee camp is, because you're saying these toilets are there on the end, just to kind of give us some context of how big they are, how many people might be there? How big would they be, in terms of I don't know, like kilometres, or like football pitches or something like that.


We're talking about very large, often semi-permanent areas where displaced people are living. And I just to be clear, you know, people can be displaced people can't for all sorts of reasons. And often, it's the indirect effects of climate change rather than the direct, that cause people to be internationally displaced. By that, I mean, if you've got disruption to the water source, or if you're having, you know, weather events, extreme weather events, that are causing large groups of people to have to move internationally. And that's when you're going to have these large camps, but they're large. They're big, we're talking 1000s of people.


And they're a mixture of different people who've been all moved to one camp, or they're all from the same disaster.


Generally, I think they tend to be from movement from a specific event or area, but again, not really my specific area.


Okay, so women are just exceptionally vulnerable when the displaced and move to a different area. And as you're saying, there's going to be potentially a language barrier where they can't seek support, they can't find support. And I'm guessing that there's not enough people to provide security to provide safety within the camps.


I think it's just that if you're as with COVID, the climate and ecological emergency just puts so many more people who are already vulnerable at risk, it kind of preys on vulnerabilities. For example, with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, we work with people who have mental health disorders, or who are carriers or relatives or friends of those with mental health disorders.

If you have even a very well-controlled mental health disorder, if you're, you know, doing well, your recovery is going well, and you're on a long-term medication or a long term therapy to keep you well, then actually, if you imagine if your home is flooded, for example, that's the commonest that we have in the UK effect of climate change at the moment, then what's that going to do to you? Well, if you have to leave your home, right, and move somewhere else, even if it's in with friends, or in a temporary accommodation, you're going to have to find a new GP probably going to have to find a new mental health service, even if you're moving more than a few miles away. How is that going to affect your mental health? Well, actually, it could be devastating.

Are you going to able to get your medication? Is that going to be your priority, if your home is flooded in all your possessions have to be salvaged or replaced, and you have to sort out the your accommodation that's been flooded? Well, it's going to have a massive effect, you're going to have to be hugely organised and have an awful lot of support for it not to have an impact on your mental health. And even if you are able to maintain outpatient appointments, or get a GP reviews, medication therapy sessions, whatever is keeping you well, then it's still going to have a direct impact on your mental health.

So, for example, here in the UK, you have to think about the Global South, here in the UK, of those who have been flooded had floodwater in their homes at one year 30%. From the studies we have probable depression, that's clinical depression. So, that's moderate to severe depression with low mood, often what we call biological markers of depression. Feeling low, struggling with sleep and appetite, struggling with concentration, and how are you going to maintain your source of income, or you're working or you're caring duties, if you're depressed, and you're sorting out or flooding your home, equally, at one year after having flood water in your home in the UK?

28.3% people have an anxiety disorder, that's massive that's nearly a third again, how are you going to be working, carrying all the things that we need to be doing to keep well, when you have an anxiety disorder, and you're sorting out a flood in your home. And 36% of people who've had flood water in their home one year later have PTSD that's full on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That's flashbacks, nightmares, feeling jumpy feeling on edge, have diagnosed PTSD.

So, what I'm saying is that even in the UK, not even only thinking about refugee camp for the Global South, but areas that have succumbed dramatically to flooding, so that it affects the groundwater. Like in Bangladesh. We're talking, so the drinking water, like in Bangladesh, talk about in the UK, talk about devastating impacts. And if you are a woman, and therefore more likely to have caring responsibilities, then actually having depression, anxiety or PTSD is going to often have an even bigger impact on you and your family than if you're a man. And that's not to undermine or to play down the impacts on these things on men.

They're also huge, but actually, if you're more likely to have care and responsibilities, then it's going to have a massive impact. And the point of thinking about climate change from a gender lens from a women and girls lens, on International Women's Day is, of course not to take away the impacts on non-women and girls. But it's to recognise that we will not get to a place where everybody is equal.

And everyone is protected from climate and ecological emergency, without taking everyone into account both in the impacts. But especially in terms of in our planning, we have to have a decision making process about how to manage the climate and ecological emergency that fairly represents everyone who is affected indigenous peoples, women, girls, young people, older adults, those with mental health, disability, those with mental health, illnesses, those with physical disabilities, and how physical health issues, everyone needs to be represented. Otherwise, we're going to get it wrong.


Thank you so much for sharing that with us. Is there anything else that you we think we can touch on? I feel like everything that you've said so far has been amazing.


I was having a little look at the latest UN figures and the latest UN papers on gender and women. And the UN is already saying that right now, this isn't looking to the future. Global warming is one of the leading causes of world hunger, and of reduced access to water.

I think it's really important that we see the climate and ecological emergency, not as something that's going to affect us in the future. And not something that affects people over there in the global south or wherever. This is something which is already affecting us now. Today, it's going to get worse, but it's affecting us now. And today.

And I think it's also important that we remember that it affects everyone, but that women and girls everywhere are more at risk. And actually, with that in mind, I think it's tempting to get a bit depressed by it. But what I'd encourage everybody listening to do is to see what they can do on the local level to make a difference, because it does make a difference. And actually, you know, these small changes help us to feel less overwhelmed. But they also helped make a change. And it's just so important that we don't feel powerless, overwhelmed, feel like our actions don't make a difference, because they do. And I think actually, you know, this International Women's Day, we just need to remember that most things are a social justice issue, but climate changes, and climate change and gender absolutely is.


So the UN have said, "achieving gender equality in the empowerment of all women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes." We were discussing the fact, what you were talking about earlier, is that women just simply don't have access to the same resources as men. And they're not thought of, they're not a contributing factor in you know, these these policies and these programmes that help people survive a disaster.


Yeah, exactly. And I think it's a big buzzword, and I was at COP 26, in October or November. The buzzword at the moment are mitigation and adaptation. Those are the two kind of buzzwords that sort of been talked about in terms of how we manage that the climate and ecological emergency - mitigation basically just means reducing emissions. And we have a whole other podcast talking about how we're going about that what we should be doing, where we're getting it wrong, where we're getting it, right. And adaption is about reducing our vulnerability to climate change, and increasing the resilience of key areas, things like water, agriculture, human settlements, making all of those things more resilient to climate change.

But and women are absolutely at the core of that, if we don't include them in the discussions about how we're going to adapt, we are not going to get anywhere. And there is frequently said we'll never have will never get rid of poverty and have true equality unless we address gender equality. And it's the same thing with the climate, we're never going to have a reasonable and helpful response to the climate emergency we're not going to be able to, you know, adapt and mitigate without women.

The UN with these two buzzwords, mitigation and adaption, the way that they're framing the response and how the response should be globally is another two buzzwords, which is technology and financial mechanisms, thinking that both of these things need to be thought about we need new tech or to be clever with our tech and we should really think about how we're financing the response. And both of these are frequently framed, as we have to get women and girls involved. And not just involved by inviting and actually making it possible. We need to involve women what needs to happen, how can the technology that we have be adapted or be provided to women and girls, to help them with a climate emergency?

And again, financial mechanisms, they have to be flexible enough to be adapted to women, if you've got women who majority of women in the world have caring responsibilities, then it's not enough just to provide the traditional, you know, nine to five, or whatever models of financial mechanisms, it just isn't going to work, it's not working, we need something else. So, these kind of buzzwords are what are being talked about one sort of international stage around how we manage the climate, ecological emergency, and women are being absolutely held at the core of it.


What would be an alternative way of, kind of financing without doing, as you say, the traditional nine to five, which isn't going to work for these communities.


So, it's about going to get into the thing, what works there, there's all sorts of really clever financial mechanisms that can be used, often run by communities often run by the individuals who would be most benefit from, so, gosh. There's all sorts of things, you know, ways to really work on a community level. So, I think that's what it's about, it's about going to individual communities. And actually recognising that what works in rural Sub Saharan Africa is going to be different to what works in urban Delhi or something, you know, responses have to be adapted to the individuals who they're there to aid in actually, making a decision that we feel is going to benefit everybody without discussion of those who it's meant to help isn't going to get anywhere.

The representatives from countries in the Global South was the request for more financial aid. I mean, that's something that we don't necessarily have to get into the details of, but, you know, recognising climate change as the biggest threat to humanity, in terms of survival, but in terms of health and mental health as well, is important. That's not a nice view that's recognised by the lancet by the UN over who climate change is a major issue, and we have to deal with it. And the sooner the better we deal with it, the better for all of us, the less expensive it will be. So, freeing up the finances required by the global community is also essential. It's not just the mechanism of delivering that money, but actually making sure that it's there is also important.


Thank you so much for speaking with us today. It's just been so so insightful, in a way that actually didn't think that these huge percentages of women who are the most poor in the world, women got the most hungry, like it's just, it's not even like slightly tilted towards women. The majority are women. And it's just absolutely astounding to hear it.


It's shocking, isn't it? It's absolutely shocking. And you know, these aren't, as I say, these aren't nice statistics. They're UN statistics, but the ratio statistics that there what's happening, and it's shocking, it's absolutely shocking. But I really hope it doesn't feel overwhelming. And despairing, I feel like I really want people to hear that as a call for action, because they reaction a lot being done. There's lots to get involved in.


Yeah, absolutely. And people need to make a change right now immediately in any way that they possibly can.


The best thing you can do to make a change, a positive change for climate and ecological emergency is work out your carbon footprint, and you can just Google carbon footprint. Calculated their loads available online, work out what yours is, see what the big contributors are, and see what you can do to reduce it, that you feel as possible. You know, it's much better to make the decisions that you feel work for you rather than to act out of guilt, panic and not be able to manage it and then give up. For example, when I was first learning about the climate and ecological emergency of the impacts of hell, but a decade ago, when I was doing my, my Global Health BSC.

You know, we had some teaching on the impact of, of animal farming. And I decided I couldn't go vegan, but I would massively reduce my meat intake. And I think at that point, I was having, you know, some meat once or twice a month, and that has the biggest impact on my on my carbon footprint compared to so many other things. And that, for me felt like a really easy change. It didn't miss it wasn't a problem, and it had a massive impact.

My carbon footprint, if you're somebody who loves meat, then fine. No one's going to force you to give that up. But maybe, I don't know, the way you travel, could be easier might be that you prefer to walk or cycle to work. And that's the change you want to make rather than driving, for example. So I think it's about choosing working out your carbon footprint. Choose something that actually matters to you that you feel is manageable and not overwhelming, and make that change and feel good about it. This isn't about asking everyone to live in the woods and have a completely carbon zero existence.

But the other thing is get involved with your trust. If you're somebody working NHS get involved with your trust's green plan. Every trust has to have one, and they can have a real impact. 4 to 5% of the planet's climate, global emissions, and carbon emissions come from the healthcare sector, 4 to 5%. And the biggest part of that is not what you think it would be. It's actually medication, creating medication and giving it out. And I think it's up to half of medication we prescribe as doctors isn't taken. So what does that mean? That means to be a climate conscious and sustainable psychiatrist, we should be asking the question. Does this individual need the medication were prescribing? Are they taking it? And if not, what can we give them? You know, what can we do instead, instead of providing this medication, we have a link a leaflet how to be a sustainable psychiatrists, top 10 tips, easily achievable, things to do.


Perfect. That sounds amazing. Thank you so much for coming on to speak with us today and just illuminating the entire issue.


Yeah, I guess there's one more thing I want to say which is I don't want men to men and boys to be excluded. You know, gender equality is about everyone being equal. It's not about this being just for women or that it's men's fault or anything like that. So, I really want to encourage and include men and boys to be part of the discussion and part of the solution.

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