An action research programme in Latin America has provided further evidence that women and girls are on the frontlines of climate change impacts in the region – and bear the negative effects of climate change disproportionately. Women-led initiatives for food security and development planning show promise – and the research findings demand new ways of lateral thinking to tackle discrimination and empower women to lead more secure, productive lives. Mairi Dupar unpacks the latest research by Alexandra Vasquez, Ana Maria de la Parra, Karina Castaneda Checa, Martha del Castillo, Ana de Lima and Oriana Almeida.
Women’s unequal access to resources, their almost sole responsibility for care of dependents, and the insecurity and precariousness of their paid labour all contribute to the feminisation of poverty in the Latin America – according to Alexandra Vasquez and co-authors in ‘The gender perspective: A necessary consideration to understand and transform structures of inequality in the context of climate change?’ Their original article has recently been published in Spanish (La Perspective de Genero: Una consideracion necesaria para comprender y transformer estructuras de desigualdad en el context del cambio climatico?) in a special edition of the journal Medio Ambiente y Urbanizacion.
Vasquez el al. draw their sobering conclusions from the Climate Resilient Cities in Latin America programme, an initiative of CDKN, Fundacion Futuro Latinoamericano and the International Development Research Centre – Canada. Since 2016, the programme has been working to support strategies for more climate-resilient and sustainable growth in intermediate-sized cities of the region. Four of its six research projects have focused explicitly on gender, investigating the questions: what special challenges do women and girls face in building their own climate resilience and contributing their talents to climate-resilient development in their communities, as a whole? What opportunities exist to free up women’s and girls’ potential?
The four research projects that explored the gender dimensions of climate-resilient development were: Climate-resilient Coyuca (Coyuca resiliente al clima, Guerrero state, Mexico), Self-sustaining Amazonian Cities Project (Proyecto Cuidades Auto-Sostenibles Amazonicas – CASA, Iquitos, Peru), Livelihoods and Resilience (Medios de Vida y Resiliencia, Amazon delta region), and Climate resilient Cumbaza (Cumbaza resiliente al clima, Cumbaza basin, Peru).
Capturing lessons from across these projects, Vasquez et al find that a mixture of: gender roles; the use, access and control of resources; and women’s practical needs and strategic interests all shape women’s and girls’ climate-related vulnerability and provide the basis for actions to improve their resilience and wellbeing.
Women’s lack of voice in decision-making increases vulnerability
Women’s disproportionate share of unpaid labour in the home, thanks to the conventional ‘sexual division of labour’, is mirrored by their notable absence from external positions of power. Women are disadvantaged when it comes to raising demands and needs with the local authorities – as they do not hold positions of power or well-paid jobs.
Important community-level decisions are typically the preserve of men in the project areas. Women are a minority in community fora, and so have less access to information that would enable them to build resilience – particularly in the face of climate-related emergencies. Research in the Cumbaza river basin of Peru found that ‘democracy is weak’ and there are ‘marked gender inequalities in the municipal administration’.
No wonder, then – conclude the authors – that women’s particular needs and concerns, and their potential contributions to creating climate resilience, are notably missing.
When climate disaster strikes – women are on the frontlines
In Latin America, women and girls lack the equal opportunity to access and control resources – argue Vasquez et al. Women and girls living in rural and urban poverty, and those who are of ethnic African and indigenous origin face additional prejudice and lack of access to education, decent employment and housing.
Across the projects studied, the populations generally lack access to potable water, sanitation, housing, energy, food and other basic services necessary for survival (with the exception of the lower reaches of the Cumbaza river basin). Women are at the frontlines of these pressures and vulnerable in situations of heightened climate risk, due to their responsibilities for guaranteeing water, food and care at home. The research found that they are responsible for but lack access to vital fresh water (in the villages of Barra and El Bejuco) and food (in Chicolandia) during periods of crisis.
In the Cumbaza basin in Peru, rural women have the tedious and time-consuming role of searching for fuelwood for cooking – which is decreasingly available. Meanwhile, when it comes to ownership and control over irrigated rice plots, most land titles are held by men.
Household economic surveys reveal that the small income women earn is spent on the family as a whole; male labourers spend their money first on their own material needs, with some leftover spent on the family.
Meanwhile, malnutrition, diseases related to contaminated water and limited access to quality education mainly affect children and adolescents – who also face problems of sexual violence and early pregnancy.
In the CASA study area of Iquitos, Peru, where the population has been relocated from a flood-plagued area, young women are far more likely to be illiterate and to have dropped out of school early – due to high rates of teenage pregnancy.
The research shines a light on the dominance of culturally-based discrimination against and subordination of women. These conditions of inequality are exacerbated by climatic disasters. Women’s workload makes them more vulnerable in states of emergency and their safety and health always seem to be the last consideration – as the rest of the family’s security comes first.
Inclusive civil society initiatives could help build resilience
Vasquez et al. have identified where groups of women are organising locally, in solidarity, to improve their wellbeing and that of their families – as in the ‘Comedor las Abejitas’ group in Nuevo Belen, Peru: this group liaises with the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations – the institution responsible for the releasing resources from the Food Supplementation Programme to address food insecurity. The same CASA project in Iquitos is working with local government to co-develop productive enterprises for women.
The authors identify other ‘impulses’ of citizen organising, which place women in more central and guiding roles, and which hold promise for more sustainable development outcomes. In Coyuca, a ‘multi-actor’ platform is looking at managing climate risks through a ‘Climate resilience strategy – participatory and sensitive to gender’.
Continued political, moral and financial support for initiatives such as these will surely go some way to redressing the unequal climate vulnerabilities highlighted by the Climate Resilient Cities in Latin America projects – but the synthesis by Vasquez et al leaves the impression that even more such initiatives are needed.
And one cannot help but recognise the other, deeper sources of insecurity and inequity highlighted in the programme’s analysis – around girls’ and women’s needs for literacy and access to education, their need for freedom from sexual violence and greater awareness of and assertion of their human rights. These are issues that could be addressed holistically to enable everyone to lead safe, secure and fulfilling lives in a changing climate.