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How Climate Change Harms Women of Color Across the Globe

Photo by Pixabay

The past year saw some of the most devastating climate catastrophes across the globe, from floods in Pakistan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Brazil to droughts in Somalia, Spain, Kenya, China, Ethiopia, Europe and the United States. While climate change affects the entire world, the impact is borne disproportionately along the lines of gender, race, and class.

“The places with the least level of economic development are certainly in line to feel the impacts with the greatest degree, partially just due to their geographic fate — or their location — but more so based on the socio-economic and governance factors,” Niall Smith, an analyst of regional climate change vulnerability, told the Times.

Ethics professor Cynthia D. Moe Lobeda, with Seattle University's School of Theology agrees. Lobeda calls climate change the “most far-reaching manifestation of to face humankind,” which wreaks havoc on “impoverished people, who also are disproportionately people of color.

Women of color—particularly those living in the global south—are perhaps at the greatest risk. Pakistan floods recently left eight million people displaced in what U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called “monsoon on steroids.” More than 400,000 pregnant women were without roofs over their heads or access to necessary medical resources. This number does not include the additional hardship of menstruating girls and women without access to sanitary products. In addition to the death toll, flooding heightened period poverty in a society that already stigmatizes women’s reproductive health. Local grassroots movements such as Mahwari Justice struggled to get period products to inundated areas.

Another problem impacting flood-affected women across Pakistan—and perhaps all women of color—is a confirmed surge in gender-based violence during times of calamity. UN Women claims increased worry, fear, and ambiguity generally leads to an increase in violence against women and girls, especially from intimate partners and male family members.

“Cases of harassment and sexual violence have also been reported, fueled by disputes over food and other essential items. As food insecurity rises, young girls, in particular, are at higher risk of violence, including sexual exploitation and forced marriage,” in exchange for money to feed her birth family, the report states.

Researchers say the grind of environmental degradation and climate change is driving considerable violence against indigenous women in Papua New Guinea. Professor Szilvia Csevar, with The Hague University of Applied Sciences, in the Netherlands, claims climate catastrophes, coupled with preexisting socio-politico problems, are locking indigenous women into repeat cycles of violence, marginalization, and isolation. The women of Puerto Rico, for example, faced a comparable uptick in violence after Hurricane Maria.

Climate change-related catastrophes also exacerbated the preexisting oppression of women of color through displacement in Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Cameroon and New Orleans, among others. It forces men to migrate from rural to urban areas for work and leave women behind in charge of land, but without “the respective legal rights or social authority” to safely run it.

Women of color living in the global north fare little better. Centuries of segregation and redlining have squeezed Black Americans into low-lying, flood-prone areas, making them easy targets of hurricanes. More than half of Black people in the U.S. live in the South, which is predicted to see stronger climate-related hurricanes and increased flooding.

Washington University student Naomi Michelson predicts Black women will face a unique set of ailments under the climate crisis. Studies suggest high temperatures contribute to an increase in sex-related crimes, and Black girls’ and women’s historical hyper sexualization could make “them most vulnerable to heat-related sexual violence and intimate partner violence,” in addition to subsequent STD-related illness. Other studies claim rising temperatures and air pollution exacerbate pregnancy complications, including preterm birth and low-birth weight.

According to a Cambridge University report, indigenous people in the global north, including communities in the U.S. and the Canadian Arctic, greatly suffer the consequences of climate change. Furthered that within indigenous communities, women face additional burdens because of increased 'reproductive labor'. This consists of maintaining family and community cohesion, particularly when island communities are displaced by storms and relocated to the mainland.

Critics say countermeasures to the incoming legion of race and gender-related damage should include financial and rehabilitative reparations, particularly from industrial countries responsible for the majority of carbon emissions. International institutions should focus their funding on women of color, particularly those in low-income, developing regions.

Women of color should also be placed in higher-ranking positions to better influence policy in international and local forums. Only seven, out of a total of 110 world leaders at the UNFCCC’s 27th Conference of the Parties, were women. Analyses of the participant list showed less than 34% of country negotiation staff were female, with some teams consisting of more than 90% male members. Their absence is a criminal irony, particularly with women of color on the frontline of grassroots movements against climate change, according to the World Bank.


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