The Relationship between Women’s Empowerment and Climate Change

The Relationship between Women’s Empowerment and Climate Change

November 4, 2022

5 min read; 698 words

Tags: Energy Policy

Author: Lillian Miller

Climate change is known to have a considerably larger impact on some populations or individual groups over others. This discrepancy is driven by a variety of factors, including social inequalities, poverty levels, ethnic discrimination and resource access, among others. Women and girls are especially at high risk for experiencing these climate induced impacts due to denial of reproductive rights, lack of access to proper health care services, and increased vulnerability to violence in many parts of the world.

One of the underlying principles of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is that everything is interconnected: from climate change (SDG 13) to reduced poverty (SDG 1) to education (SDG 4) to gender equality (SGD 5). Accordingly, we can look at the issue of women's health from two different perspectives: how climate change can exacerbate issues that women already experience around the world, and how advances in women’s rights have the potential to be a useful tool in fighting climate change.

Even without the influence of climate change, women face a variety of health challenges that are frequently overlooked. This includes an assortment of pregnancy complications, reproductive cancers and sexual violence, as well as unsafe abortions and lack of access to safe and effective contraceptives. In areas of the world where reproductive services are unavailable, this leads to high maternal mortality.

Climate change only proves to exacerbate these issues. Extreme weather events, such heat waves, have been shown to increase incidences of stillbirth. Particularly in developing areas, climate change puts a huge stress on healthcare systems: from physically destroying hospitals to diverting medical resources to treat diseases like malaria, zica, or heat strain. This strain on healthcare services often means that maternal health and reproductive services take a massive hit, given that they are already undervalued in many countries.

In general, climate change (via increased extreme weather patterns) increases patterns of food insecurity. Women are most likely to suffer as a result of this; anemia, which is often caused by lack of nutrition, rose from 30.3 % in 2012 to 32.8 % in 2016, in women across the world. This lack of nutrition can seriously impair a woman’s ability to have a healthy, safe pregnancy and thereafter care for and raise a child in such demanding conditions.

However, the UN has found that between the years 1970 and 1995 increases in food security in many countries correlated with women’s empowerment. Often defined in terms of improving women's autonomy - from their sense of self worth, their ability to make their own decisions, and their ability to prompt change in their communities - women’s empowerment is a broad idea that speaks to the overall importance of gender inequality in communities.

It follows that women’s empowerment and reproductive rights - including access to contraceptives and safe abortion are essential in the fight against climate change, as well as mitigating local impact on communities and women.

One of the largest drives of climate change is an exponentially increasing population - by the year 2100, our population is expected to exceed 10.9 billion. Across the world there are nearly 99 million unintended pregnancies each year, accounting for 44% of all pregnancies. Increased availability of safe, inexpensive contraceptives could be an incredibly valuable approach to fighting climate change. In fact, increased access to family planning services, especially in developing countries, has been shown to reduce family size and fertility rates.

Between 2019 and 2020, nearly 321 billion USD in public funds were dedicated to fighting climate change. Increasing the portion of funding to support reproductive health care and family planning around the world could not only help cap carbon emission, but also aid the development of countries around the world. Giving women greater access to reproductive care will contribute to increased career and educational opportunities across the world - helping them better adapt to climate change.

Present day, women’s rights are being challenged across the world, with the most recent example being the United States Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. While the fights over abortion and contraception often are focused on religious morality and women’s rights, the interplay of climate change and the health and well being of half of the population needs to become pat of these conversation.

Going forward it is important to advocate for the support of reproductive health rights across the world - not only as a women's issue but as a climate issue.

Lillian Miller is a sophomore studying Chemistry and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania.