By Jacqueline Grima
When one of the deadliest cyclones on record hit south-eastern Bangladesh in April 1991, over 130,000 people were killed and millions left homeless. When Hurricane Katrina hit the United States in 2005, nearly 2000 people died and almost the entire city of New Orleans was destroyed. What is little known about both disasters, however, is the devastating impact they had on the female populations of both countries. 90% of the victims in Bangladesh women who, due to cultural restrictions, had never learned to swim, had no access to public news channels or were obliged to wait for their male relatives to help them. Similarly, in New Orleans, 85% of the residents left to cope in the flooded city were female, unable to leave due to financial restrictions, lack of transport facilities and dependents.
The impact of climate change on women and their role in tackling it were the issues discussed in Manchester Metropolitan University’s ‘Gender and Climate Change’ workshop this week, organised by the university’s Environment Team. Led by Connie Hunter, of the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN), a London-based project founded in 1988, participants of the workshop were encouraged to think about the impact climate change has on women, particularly in developing countries, and how it differs from its impact on men. Ailsa McConnachie-Folwell, Birley Sustainability Engagement Intern, told Humanity Hallows, “The workshop is a great way to raise awareness of issues and get students interested in the connection between gender and climate change.”
Some of the topics raised at the workshop included the lack of medical facilities available to women affected by climate change in developing countries, the lack of education for young females who are expected to help in the agricultural industry during times of famine and drought and the vulnerability of women caught in a health crisis such as the Ebola epidemic, during which women, as primary care-givers, are expected to tend to the sick and dying. As Connie Hunter stated, “Disasters simply exacerbate existing inequalities.”
Another issue raised was the under-representation of women in the decision-making process regarding climate change and its solutions, both in the science industry and in government, with countries who have a higher proportion of female Members of Parliament seeming to engage with more successful environmental policies. As one participant of the workshop, Mike Koefman, Director and outreach worker at Planet Hydrogen, a Manchester-based group of environmental campaigners, suggested, “Women should not only be given a platform but should be taking charge. There are so many brilliant women scientists whose energy and knowledge is not tapped into.”
Participant reaction to the workshop was enthusiastic and engaged, Law student Aysha Mazhar saying, “I am interested in gender and the way women are represented and the only connection I had made before between women and climate change was regarding the ‘moon-cup’ which is an environmentally-friendly, reusable sanitary protection.” Stacie Cohen of Manchester City Council’s Environment Strategy Team said she had attended the workshop because, “People don’t normally think of climate change in terms of gender inequality.”
Asked if she thought the WEN workshops were beneficial in raising awareness of women’s role in tackling climate change, Connie Hunter said, “These workshops are quite a new venture for us. It is something that WEN used to do and that we would like to bring back as we want more women to become involved with WEN and to become involved in environmental issues in their own communities.”
Jacqueline Grima is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing whilst also trying to find a publisher for her novel ‘Coming Second’ which was shortlisted for the 2014 Luke Bitmead Bursary. She is also a mum of three, an avid baker and a music lover and can be followed on Twitter @GrimaJgrima or through her blog.