Why women's health is more at risk
Women are the superheroes of our society, and just like in true superhero-fashion they carry out their work swiftly and efficiently without anyone realizing just how much they do to make sure everyone stays safe and life keeps running! They manage to juggle a variety of tasks everyday and their hard work is often under-appreciated. In lower income countries, women are the ones to grow and produce food, obtain water, cook, clean, bring up children, and take care of the household. However, even though women are awesome, they face unequal health risks compared to men and climate change will only make things worse. Read on to learn more about how climate change impacts women's health specifically.
How women are more vulnerable
Certain cultural and religiously based gender roles place women and girls at higher risk of developing health risks. For example, women suffer from higher rates of anemia and malnutrition compared to men globally (5). In countries with deep-rooted gender norms, women eat last after all the men and boys have been fed and consume the least amount of food (8). Women are usually also the first to sacrifice their own food to ensure their families have enough in periods of crisis (8). All of this contributes to calorie deficiency, chronic energy deficiency, and poor health in women, making them more vulnerable to climate catastrophes (13).
Women are also more economically vulnerable due to lower social and political status in countries with strong gender roles (12). They often don't share the same rights as their male counterparts when it comes to things like social status, land ownership, educational opportunities, and health outcomes as it relates to reproductive and sexual health (12). Since women are responsible for household food and water collection in these countries--both time consuming and physically demanding tasks--they often don't have the time or opportunity to earn an income or continue their education or participate in local governance (12,13). In general, women in these societies have lower average literacy and education levels and even if they are able to secure a job are still regarded as secondary income earners and are the first to be laid off (13). This economic and social insecurity highlights the fact that women are more likely to slip into and live in poverty, inhibiting their ability to adequately provide self-protection and improve their socioeconomic condition (13).
In many societies, women are also in charge of caregiving responsibilities, which could prevent them from leaving certain areas outside their immediate environment (12). This would impede their ability to mobilize in case of emergency or climate disaster (12). Women are also at higher risk of violence during and after disasters (12,13).
It's clear to see from this that women face a number of challenges due to just their gender identity and often suffer more than men from poverty, hunger, malnutrition, economic crises, violence, and disaster related problems (13). Climate change-related disasters have the potential to make things worse.
Climate Change will make things worse
Climate change can impact people's health through a variety of mechanisms—heat, poor air quality, extreme weather events, reduced water quality, decreased food security, and vector-borne diseases, just to name a few (5). Since women have distinct physiologic and health needs throughout their life cycle, especially during periods like pregnancy, this places them at a greater risk of climate change impacts and sensitivities (2,5).
Since climate change can lead to increased temperatures and sea level rise, this contributes to heat waves and saltwater intrusion in rural coastal areas (2, 6). Saltwater intrusion happens when seawater encroaches into fresh groundwater supplies and increases the salt content of people's drinking water (7). This is an issue because people can't drink salt water and it can't be used to irrigate crops, so this could contribute to water scarcity and food insecurity (7). In addition, both saltwater intrusion and heat waves increase the potential risk for pregnant women of developing preeclampsia, gestational hypertension, or delivering preterm (2,6).
Since women often eat last in their families in certain countries, climate-driven food insecurity would worsen their already limited nutritional intake (5,8). This would negatively impact women's health during menstruation, pregnancy, and nursing—all periods of time when women have increased nutritional needs physiologically (2,5). Since women produce around 60-80% of all food in low-income countries and are the main food producers and providers in the world, climate change-related agricultural issues and food scarcity wouldn't just be a health issue but an economic one as well (2,3,5). Women's livelihoods as smallholder farmers would be at risk from climate-related crop failure, which would increase their risk of falling into poverty (5).
During climate-related disasters like floods, storms, droughts, and heat waves, women suffer more mortality cases compared to men and are at a greater risk of experiencing physical, sexual, and domestic violence afterwards (2,5). This mortality difference is most striking when compared to women's socio-economic status in the country, since women have the worst mortality outcomes in countries where they have very low social, economic, and political status (10).
This combination of low social and economic status and socially constructed gender roles contribute to the increased climate change-related health risks women have compared to men (9,13). However, we can do things to change this.
The way forward
Thankfully, organizations are aware of this disparity and have been researching how to mitigate it. By empowering women to participate in decision making at all levels and providing proper access to information and education, we can help develop and improve women's livelihoods and create lasting social change (13). Increasing women's social and economic opportunities will allow them to not only develop more social network connections and have greater autonomy and independence, but also contribute to overall better health outcomes.
While both men and women will be vulnerable to changing environmental conditions, the drivers and effects of climate change are not gender neutral (3). To help address this, women should be included at all levels of decision making so as to contribute to the process of assessing vulnerabilities and capacities and promoting equality (2,5,13).