V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Gender and climate change

While men in power suits stroke their ties and helm international climate change talks, women do battle on the front lines.

While men engage in verbal jousting about treaty language, women walk for miles in search of fresh water and fuel wood because of deforestation.

It's been estimated that everyday in South Africa, the country's women collectively walk the equivalent distance of going to the moon and back 16 times to fetch water for their families.

Worldwide, women are disproportionately affected by climate change, says the Women's Environment & Development Organization. Yet the proportion of women who occupy political decision-making positions in parliaments around the world currently stands at 18.2%.

As Canadians celebrate the caregivers in their lives this Mother's Day weekend, millions of women in developing countries will continue to labour in obscurity, as both victims of climate change and powerful, but underused agents for change.

Drought, deforestation and desertification are forcing women to walk further afield in search of water and fuel wood. In Gujarat, India, women spend five hours a day collecting fuel wood -- and they only used to go out every four or five days, says a UN report Women, Health and the Environment.

In Botswana, women walk nearly 7 km everyday to fetch water to wash, cook and clean, said Oxfam Canada's Lisa Faye of Saskatoon.

"That's when girls are forced to quit school," Faye said.

Uneducated girls fail to learn the skills necessary to earn formal wages, forcing them back into the home to slave like their mothers, added Rachel Harris, spokesman for WEDO, from New York.

"It's a continuing a cycle of poverty," she said.

It's widely accepted that natural disasters and environmental degradation hit the world's poor the hardest. But 70% of the 1.3 billion people in the developing world who live in poverty are also women.

It's also been estimated that women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during a disaster. During the 2006 tsunami in South East Asia, for example, men in Indonesia and Sri Lanka outnumbered female survivors by a ratio of almost four to one. This could be explained in part because swimming and tree climbing -- which saved countless young boys -- are taught mostly to males out of social prejudice, says an Oxfam report.

The number of natural disasters in the last two decades have quadrupled, Faye added, and extreme weather patterns like monsoon rains add to an already dawn-to-dusk workload for women.

Standing water from heavy rains also attracts more mosquitoes and leads to malaria, turning women into both victims and primary caregivers for children and the elderly.

As water collectors, they're also more vulnerable to waterborne illnesses like diarrhea, dysentery and cholera. When women -- oftentimes school children -- have to walk further distances to fetch supplies, they're also easy prey for sexual assaults and beatings along the way.

According to the World Conservation Union, many women suffer permanent skeletal damage from carrying heavy loads of water over long distances everyday.

"Climate change introduces another burden in their lives," Harris said.

Unpredictable rainfall and droughts inconsistent with decades-old weather patterns are wreaking havoc with crops, Harris added, wiping out food sources for the family.

But women around the world are slowly empowering themselves. A joint report released from Oxfam America and WEDO highlights the progress made in Kenya, for example, where communities suffering from a lack of natural resources started a tree planting program, the Green Belt Movement.

And women in Ethiopia are able to anticipate water needs before a drought hits with the aid of a surveillance system they administer.

But one of the biggest advances will be if the predominantly boys-only club steering the post-Kyoto climate change talks gives women their fair share of a voice, Harris said.

"We need to take gender roles into account."

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Per cent of population who must travel more than an hour to fetch water.

Selected African countries, 2001 or latest available data.

Woman and girls often walk 15 km a day, to and from water sources, spending eight hours or more a day collecting repeated loads weighing up to 20 kilos -- the weight of an airline suitcase -- at a time. In India they spend 150 million work days a year on the task.

-- Source: United Nations Environment Programme

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