Climate Change: A Feminist Issue

Women's Peace Issues

Image via MADRE.

By Juliana DeSimone

This post is part one in a series about the intersection between peace issues and gender. This series is meant to push people to think critically about the ways in which women are distinctly impacted by peace issues. Issues of peace impact everyone; at the same time, all peace issues are feminist issues. Thus, all peace issues require a gendered lens in order to be adequately addressed.

Over the course of the last decade, climate change has become a hot button issue, and rightfully so. As scientists reveal more staggering statistics about the irreparable damage that our planet has undergone and will continue to battle, the discourse surrounding the effects of climate change has grown. While it is commendable that individuals recognize the dangers of climate change, the greater discussion and research regarding this issue has forgotten one group that has been and will continue to be particularly impacted: women. 

Climate change affects women across the globe in distinct ways; it often impacts women’s health, increases levels of violence against women, and exacerbates economic pressures on women-lead households. 

A geographical susceptibility to tropical cyclones, droughts, and rising sea levels coupled with a history of nuclear testing have left the Marshall Islands devastated by climate change. The fallout from United States nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958 has permanently polluted the land and water. This pollution has disrupted the traditional Marshallese life of fishing and subsistence living and triggered immeasurable health problems for the inhabitants.

Nuclear fallout in the Marshall Islands. Image via LA Times.

Women are among those most affected by climate change in the region. The generational impacts of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands have caused many health issues specific to women, including high instances of birth defects, miscarriage, and high rates of thyroid, cervical, breast, and other cancers. A report from UN Women has found that, on top of these health problems, “birth defects cause particular distress to Marshallese women, as local culture views reproductive abnormalities as a sign that women have been unfaithful to their husbands.” 

The report explains that Marshallese society is traditionally matriarchal, and land is inherited along matrilineal lines. However, as land disappears due to erosion, many Marshallese women no longer have autonomy over their land and have become more dependent on their male family members. At the same time, women’s workloads have surged across the islands, and women have become the breadwinners of their families.

These economic pressures on women, compounded by health problems, have forced many Marshallese women to migrate to the United States. The majority of these migrants settle in Arkansas where they struggle to find adequate health care. Most of the women work for a chicken processing plant.

Hilda Heine, the nation’s current president, as well as the first female president and first person from the Marshall Islands to receive a Ph.D., summarized the struggles faced by Marshallese women and other women across the globe who contend with climate change on a daily basis: “The reality of gender and climate is that women are disproportionately affected by climate change, but they are far less likely to cope with the potentially devastating effects because they have fewer resources such as power and access to finance and technology.”

Hilda Heine speaking about climate change and gender. Image via CEO Magazine.

The role of the agricultural sector in Indonesia’s economy and lifestyle contributes to climate-based hardships for women in the country. The agricultural sector has suffered greatly from climate change, and by extension, so have the women who compose the majority of the agricultural workforce. Rising temperatures in the region as a result of climate change, along with pesticide exposure, lead to high rates of stillbirths and miscarriages for the women who must work long days outside. Despite these threats to women’s health and fertility rates, having more children can increase the long-term productivity of a farming family; thus, Indonesian women may feel pressure to have more children despite these dangers.

As crop yields have worsened in Indonesia and harmed productivity on small-holder Indonesian farms, many Indonesian women have migrated to countries like Malaysia to seek new income for their families. The dire need for female heads-of-households to support their families in the face of climate-triggered poverty has enabled the human trafficking of many Indonesian women, desperate to help their families.

In the United States, the women of Flint, Michigan feel the heavy weight of climate change in their community. In 2014, the Michigan government advised the city of Flint to switch its water supply to the Flint River in order to save money. However, the Flint River has been tainted with lead because state and local governments neglected to enact any corrosion prevention. As a result, the situation in Flint is a full-scale environmental disaster. The city’s water supply for drinking, bathing, and providing medical care is tainted with high levels of lead and iron. Six years after this issue was made public, the government has failed to help its citizens, who are largely a vulnerable community economically speaking.

Similar to the Marshall Islands and Indonesia, the women of Flint face distinct, severe health consequences because of this lack of access to safe drinking water. Lead is quite detrimental to the development of children; one study from the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecological, and Neonatal Nursing found that “childhood lead exposure can later affect women in their childbearing years because lead stored in the bones during prior exposure is mobilized in pregnancy and lactation and can be released into maternal blood and breast milk and adversely affect the fetus and infant.”

You can take action today to encourage the government to adopt a gendered response to climate change. Continue to educate yourself, and contact your representatives to encourage them to invest in women to tackle climate change and conserve the environment.

Climate change is a concern worthy of attention. However, as conversations about climate change develop and intensify, so too should discussions and policies that address the ways in which the lives of women across the world are uniquely impacted.

Are you interested in engaging further with issues of peace and climate change? Consider joining Massachusetts Peace Action’s working group on Peace and Climate