I grew up knowing my country was drowning. My childhood memories are full of flashing images of annual monsoon rains making rivers out of our roads, lakes out of our rice paddy fields, washing away farmers’ harvests, pushing the rural population into our already overpopulated capital city. Of course the yearly floods alternated with even greater natural disasters- cyclones, tornadoes, you name it growing up I saw it. The rumor in the playground was that in twenty years Bangladesh would be completely underwater.
Today that statement is no longer a rumor, but very much a reality. According to the UK’s Guardian publication, Bangladesh makes up not even 10% of the land mass of South Asia , but over 90% of the region’s water passes through it. Experts state that Bangladesh ‘s shifting and intensifying weather patterns are making a bad situation worse. The case of Bangladesh shows us that climate change is real, and is already impacting populations and ecosystems around the world.
But the case of Bangladesh shows us something more: That it’s the world’s poor who will feel the impact of this change the hardest. And who exactly are the poor? Women, who make up approximately 65% of the world’s poorest populations.
Because of the traditional domestic responsibilities which fall on women and girls, experts state that climate change is having a disproportionate affect them. Women are the primary caretakers of families, primary managers of everything from food production to water management in their households. As UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) puts it, women are the ones who cook, clean, and farm for their families, in addition to providing health care and hygiene. Women are not only on the “frontlines” of climate change, but their work and relationship with the environment is so intimate that their experience with it changing is often just as personal.
Let’s look at the issue of water for example, a natural resource especially sensitive to climate change, and one that traditionally women are the managers of in their households. According to UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women), women and girls on average travel 10-15 kilometers, spending up to 8 hours a day gathering water for their families. Droughts caused by climate change are shrinking up and eliminating existing water supplies, making the distance to walk even longer. Because of the distances women and girls have to walk to fetch water for their families, millions of girls around the world are unable to go to school. Imagine that. The average person would never make the connection between accessing water and girls’ education. Yet it exists.
As the gendered impact of climate change becomes increasingly palpable, my question is- where are the feminist voices? Why are more women’s rights advocates and activists not picking up and rallying around this issue vigorously? Everyday you see articles in the news, but where is the real action? More importantly, where is the outrage? Just yesterday I read an article in the LA Times talking about how the newest kind of refugee is not from war, but from of climate change. They are called “climate refugees” and the LA Times states that almost 10million people around the world have been forced to leave their homes for “reasons ranging from rising (or falling) sea levels, lack of rain, and desertification.”
Back home in Bangladesh , the list of innovative ideas to combat and more importantly, adapt to climate change is endless. International aid organizations are working with local NGOs to build “floating villages,” clinics on boats, and help women educate their communities about securing flood and cyclone shelters.
But there has to be more. Women may be in the frontlines of climate change, but they are not only its victims. Their personal and intimate experience of the harsh impacts of climate change means that within them lies very real solutions to combat it. If the voices from the women’s rights movement don’t pick up this issue, loudly, clearly and unanimously, climate change will not only drown out countries, but the agents of change, women, with it. And that is simply not an option.
It is the responsibility of the women’s movement, both here in the US and abroad, to make the issue of our altering environment, our issue, otherwise everybody loses. Climate change is a human rights issue, but its very obvious gendered impacts make it a women’s rights issue.
*This post of mine was also published on Huffington Post.