Why women are key to climate adaptation and resilience

Two girls carrying gallons of Water on their heads in a water-scarce region. [iStockphoto]

On March 3, 2024, as the continent commemorated the African Environment and Wangari Maathai Day, we were reminded not only of Wangari Maathai's remarkable environmental stewardship legacy but also of the broader role of women in safeguarding our planet. As we honour her memory, I find myself pondering the role of women as agents of change in environmental stewardship, particularly in the face of the gendered impacts of climate change.

The Green Belt Movement, which was founded by Prof Maathai, exemplifies the transformative potential of empowering women to protect and preserve our natural world. Through this movement, women across Kenya became guardians of their environments, planting trees, restoring degraded landscapes and fostering community resilience.

Women, particularly in marginalised communities, often bear the brunt of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution due to systemic gender inequalities.

Climate change impacts, such as extreme weather events and altered disease patterns, often disproportionately affect women's health and livelihoods.

In many regions, women serve as primary caregivers and providers of food and water for their families, making them more susceptible to the consequences of ecosystem degradation and resource scarcity.

Pollution, particularly in areas where women are responsible for household chores, poses significant health risks to them, compounding their vulnerability.

Additionally, women are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, and landslides. Various factors contribute to women's vulnerability during disasters, including economic, social, ecological, political, physical, and emotional aspects.

Economically, women often struggle to find employment opportunities and face underpayment and limited access to resources, exacerbating their vulnerability. Further, changing social conditions within their communities and families can further hinder women's ability to adapt to climate-related challenges.

Ecologically, environmental changes may force women to seek food and resources elsewhere, posing additional challenges.

Politically, women may lack proper representation in decision-making processes, limiting their access to resources and support during disasters.

Physically and emotionally, women often experience psychological and physical challenges, including soreness, miscarriages, sleep disturbances, and emotional distress, which further exacerbate their vulnerability to climate change impacts.

Despite constituting half the global population, women and girls are frequently marginalised in climate change discussions. However, achieving the Paris Agreement's crucial 1.5-degree Celsius temperature limit demands collective action.

This necessitates empowering and actively involving women and girls in climate action. It offers a framework for states to address the impacts on women, children, and nature through their National Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs).

By integrating gender-sensitive and inclusive approaches into their NDCs and NAPs, states can prioritise the needs of vulnerable groups and promote equitable and sustainable development.

Measures such as providing access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities for women and children, implementing nature-based solutions, and fostering community resilience are crucial for mitigating the adverse effects of climate change.

Through collaborative efforts and innovative solutions, states can work towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement while ensuring that no one is left behind in the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient future.

In our journey towards climate adaptation and resilience, we must recognise and value the indigenous knowledge possessed by women. Across generations, women in indigenous communities have been the stewards of traditional wisdom, passed down through oral traditions and practical experience.

This knowledge encompasses a deep understanding of local ecosystems, weather patterns, and sustainable practices that have sustained communities for centuries. Women in indigenous communities play a vital role in observing subtle changes in their environments, which can signal impending shifts in weather patterns or ecological imbalances.

Their intimate knowledge of the land and its resources is invaluable for developing adaptive strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change. For example, in regions prone to drought, indigenous women may possess knowledge of drought-resistant crops or water conservation techniques passed down through generations.

In coastal communities facing rising sea levels, women may have insights into traditional methods of mangrove restoration or sustainable fishing practices that promote ecosystem health and resilience.

Furthermore, indigenous women often serve as the custodians of biodiversity-rich areas, safeguarding medicinal plants, heirloom seeds, and cultural heritage. Their holistic approach to environmental stewardship encompasses not only the physical aspects of ecosystems but also their spiritual and cultural significance.

By empowering indigenous women as agents of climate adaptation and resilience, we not only harness their invaluable knowledge but also foster a sense of ownership and pride in preserving their ancestral lands.

Integrating indigenous wisdom into climate action initiatives ensures that solutions are contextually appropriate, culturally sensitive, and rooted in sustainable practices that have stood the test of time.

As we work towards a more resilient future, let us amplify the voices of indigenous women, honour their contributions, and learn from their centuries-old wisdom. In doing so, we not only strengthen our collective resilience to climate change but also uphold the principles of equity, justice, and sustainability for generations to come.

Ms Ageng'a, Master's student and assistant director, Corporate Affairs, University of Nairobi.