Women and men, in all their diversities, interact differently with the environment. For example, evidence shows that climate change has gender-differentiated impacts, employment data indicates that women are more dependent on natural resources than men, and there is a wealth of literature on the disproportionate barriers women face. faced with owning assets, the lack of which can limit their ability to cope with disasters.
Data on women’s representation in government bodies shows that they are underrepresented in environmental decision-making, which limits their opportunities to shape environmental policy. A new snapshot on women and the environment in Asia-Pacific released by UN Women has similar findings. On International Women’s Day, we highlight some of these shortcomings.
Decision making in the energy sector
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global greenhouse gas emissions are largely attributable to industry, transport, energy production, agriculture and other land uses. There is insufficient data to examine how decisions affecting environmental conservation and degradation are made within these industries, and the roles that women and men play within them. Data from Pacific electric utility companies helps shed light on some of the contributions that women and men make to the energy sector.
UN Women has found that in all countries, women are underrepresented in high-level positions in these industries, which limits their decision-making power for the management of natural resources. Particularly in the Pacific, where women are the primary holders of traditional environmental knowledge, their involvement could foster transformation and conservation. Of the 19 CEO positions for which data was available, only one was held by a woman (in Papua New Guinea), and the same is true for second-in-command positions (in Samoa). Moreover, in these companies, women occupied only 24% of all management positions and 5% of all technical staff positions. These data suggest that additional career paths are needed for women, particularly to support their transition into Pacific utility company management, and promote their agency and contribution to natural resource management.
Natural resources: Water
Drinking water, energy and food are essential to people’s health and well-being. Their availability in households also helps reduce unpaid work burdens, especially for women, who are disproportionately responsible for collecting fuel and water, cleaning and cooking.
Inadequate water supply infrastructure puts many people at risk of waterborne diseases. Where tap water is not available, women are often responsible for fetching it from various sources. Analysis of geospatial data shows that women living in areas with higher rainfall are more likely to experience difficulty accessing basic drinking water sources (e.g. improved sources within 30 minutes round trip of their home) in part because dependence on rainwater among those who do not have access to tap water may be increasingly at play. In Cambodia, for example, while people living in low rainfall areas are accustomed to relying on sources such as tube wells, boreholes and bottled water, many who live in higher rainfall areas rely on rainwater during wet periods and turn to unprotected water sources, such as streams and lakes during dry seasons. While climate change
continues to alter rainfall patterns, dependence on rain can be hindered and has the potential to aggravate women’s water collection and treatment burdens.
Across the region, women are disproportionately responsible for collecting water and spend, on average, between 5 and 20 minutes per trip. This can eat into the time they can devote to paid work or leisure, and collecting water can pose health risks – not only by carrying heavy weights over long distances, but also by increasing the exposure to violence while on the move. However, in some countries, men may intervene to fetch water in households where the water source is far away, as indicated by higher median times.
Fuel-related air pollution
The use of impure cooking fuels has direct effects on indoor air quality, and women – who typically spend more time cooking and indoors than men – are disproportionately exposed. International data on deaths attributed solely to household air pollution show that these are, on the whole, inversely correlated with the use of clean cooking fuels: in countries where households are more likely use clean fuels, death rates from air pollution tend to be lower. The data, however, shows a small gender gap, with men being disadvantaged.
The higher mortality rates in men are largely due to related risk factors. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that women exposed to high levels of indoor smoke are more than twice as likely to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as women using cleaner fuels, but in exposed men, the risk nearly doubles due to behavioral disturbances. factors such as higher rates of smoking. Similarly, mortality from lung cancer, ischemic heart disease and stroke, which worsens with indoor air pollution, is affected by high blood pressure, unhealthy diets and smoking.
For women, gender-related health risks include increased incidence of musculoskeletal injuries, risk of injury and violence associated with fuel collection, increased risk of lung cancer from exposure during preparation foods, premature births and low birth weight, among others.
Aridity and droughts
The rapidly intensifying effects of climate change are having a profound impact on the lives of women, men, girls and boys. Empirical analysis reveals that child marriage is more prevalent in drier areas and in places with more frequent drought events. Contributing factors, among others, may include families using this practice as a coping strategy in drought situations when agricultural yield is lower, food prices rise and economic stresses increase.
It is important to note, however, that increased episodes of aridity and drought only appear to be correlated with increased child marriage in regions where the practice is culturally prevalent, and many other socio-cultural factors affect the prevalence of child marriage in countries where data are available. The analysis also indicates that adolescent birth rates are higher in the drylands of most countries, a result likely linked to higher early marriage rates.