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Feminism and the environment

  • Published at 07:05 pm December 4th, 2020
Climate change
Photo: Pixabay

How greater girls education means fewer emission 

In this time of urgency and emergency, we often rush to the most obvious solutions that will halt the devastating effects of climate change: stop burning fossil fuels! Go vegan! Stop flying! While all these, of course, are some solutions to the problem, there is a set of more nuanced actions we should be taking to combat the warming climate.

Though they may at first seem like unrelated, yet prominent social justice movements, feminism, and environmentalism are inextricably linked in ways that aren’t that obvious at first glance.

What may seem obvious is the impact that natural disasters have on women – we are disproportionately affected by extreme weather events than men. In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, four times as many women were killed than men. 

Some stayed behind to care for and search for children and each other. Others had simply never learned to swim. When Cyclone Gorky hit Bangladesh in 1991, it killed fourteen times more women than men. 

Importantly, there is a significant difference in gender-based death rates between countries in which social and economic rights are more equally distributed than in those in which they are not. For example, there was a negligible difference between female and male death rates during Hurricane Katrina, which hit the US in 2005.

Aside from the direct impacts of climate change on women, the more nuanced connection between environmentalism and feminism comes in the guise of education. Project Drawdown – a comprehensive summary of the most viable solutions to climate change – lists educating women and girls as the 6th most impactful thing to do to draw the climate back down. 

Project Drawdown calculates that by investing in good quality, equitable education for women and girls, we could stop over 51 billion tonnes of emissions entering the atmosphere by 2050. 

Here’s how:

Women are the primary farmers of the world, producing between 60 -- 80% of food in low-income countries. As smallholders, women often operate on fewer than five acres of land. In many countries, resources such as land rights, training, capital, tools or technology, is easier to access for men than for women. 

This resource inaccessibility is the primary reason that female farmers do not produce as much food as men on the same amount of land. By enabling women’s access to the same level of resources as men, the farming output could increase by up to 30% on the same amount of land. 

This leads to lower amounts of land being converted into pasture or cropland and subsequently less deforestation. Additionally, more food means food-related health issues improve, as will household income for smallholders. Education is not only beneficial to the environment but also vital for raising women out of poverty.

Teaching women and girls about sexual education and health is a powerful way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Educated women are more likely to marry later and have fewer children; effective and safe sexual practices are likely to lead to fewer overall births, while better standards of health have also been shown to cause a reduction in the average number of children a woman has. 

Practising safe sex allows women to choose when and how to have children, rather than leaving it up to chance. Or men. Curbing population growth will be a key factor in ensuring our emissions don’t surpass dangerous levels – the UN predicts the global population will be 9.8 billion by the year 2050, but fast education expansion at all levels to all women could result in a staggering one billion fewer people on the planet by 2060. Fewer people will result in less energy, food, and space being required – all key factors in drawing the climate back down to safe levels.

Aside from the environmental benefits, equality across society will be achieved much faster if everybody is given the same access to a good education. Globally, there are over 130 million girls who are denied their basic right to attend school, with the gaps greatest at the secondary school level. 

By enabling girls’ access to education, we see increases in health and wellbeing, decision-making and autonomy, better food and financial security, and, perhaps most importantly, sovereignty over how best to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. Education means better resilience in the face of disaster.

If this subject is sparking an interest in you, I would highly recommend listening to Katharine Wilkinson’s TED Talk “How empowering women and girls can help stop global warming.” Katharine has done extensive research in this field and is an eloquent speaker alongside being highly knowledgeable. 

Katharine is also Vice President of Communication and Engagement at Project Drawdown. Mary Robinson, former President of the Republic of Ireland, has a great podcast called “Mothers of Invention” which explores the link between feminism and climate change, with the striking strapline: “Climate change is a man-made problem with a feminist solution”. 

If you want to go a step further and support the cause with altruism, some great charities to support are Hand in Hand International, Girls Not Brides, and the Malala Fund. 

Since the simple act of education could prove so valuable in mitigating the effects of climate change for us all, we must question why it isn’t being adopted globally as a solution. 

I suspect factors like non-progressive social attitudes play a role in certain nations, as well as the overplay of other solutions. One of the most powerful ways you can help the cause is by spreading the word and telling others the important role education plays in tackling the climate crisis. 

Helena Bennett is working with the Climate Vulnerable Forum in a supporting advisory capacity. Her research interest lies in human rights and climate change. Helena can be reached at [email protected]

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