Oxfam at Bangkok Intersessional - Women's March, 2009

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When disaster strikes (and it increasingly does, thanks to climate change) women and children are 14 times more likely to die.

Canada’s new Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, should consider this as they push through the snow to come up with a new roadmap to address climate change over the coming weeks.

Mr. Dion’s recent announcement that the entire federal cabinet will “have a green orientation and sensitivity” acknowledges that we have some catching up to do on this file.

We’re not alone. While it’s no secret that Canada’s track record on emissions reductions is mediocre, in terms of addressing the gendered effects of changing weather patterns, there’s been plenty of foot-dragging from many key players.

Most decision-making institutions central to the climate change debate maintain a male-dominated hierarchy — from the bureau of the Conference of Parties (COP) representing all states that have signed the Convention on Climate Change, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Given the attention Mr. Trudeau has received for his cabinet’s gender parity — along with his much-lauded “because it’s 2015” comment — his Liberal government has a unique opportunity to continue walking the talk on gender issues. Canada can exert meaningful influence in Paris (beyond setting new emissions targets) by urging other major players to incorporate gender into all climate policies, and setting targets for this, too.  

In terms of mortality linked to disasters, women’s unequal status 365 days of the year is deadly during a crisis: for example, women comprised more than 70 per cent of fatalities following the Asian tsunami in 2004. In many places, women are socialized to stay in the home, which means they don’t flee in an emergency. Those girls and women who do survive report high levels of sexual abuse in the days following a disaster because they are forced to live in open spaces with men, struggling to share limited resources.

It is necessary for decision-makers to comprehend this human face of climate change, which a growing body of literature supports. Because women make up more than two-thirds of the world’s poor, they shoulder the greatest burden vis-à-vis the effects of global warming. This includes everything from caring for those who fall sick because changing weather patterns result in more nutrition-related illnesses, to the impact of water shortages, which means women spend less time generating income because they must walk longer distances to fetch water.

Action Against Hunger works in many countries where global warming is affecting food security. We have seen how this presents multiple challenges for women, who, due to food taboos and traditions, often lack access to certain nutritious foods even in times of plenty. Successive droughts also mean men travel long distances in search of work, forcing women to take on more responsibilities and find new ways to provide for their families. Meanwhile, lack of rain has resulted in cases of severe malnutrition at levels doctors have not seen before in countries like Guatemala and Nicaragua, where this type of malnutrition linked to lack of food is uncommon. 

After recognizing Action Against Hunger’s blind spots when it comes to gender inequalities in our programming in more than 45 countries, we recently created a new gender policy. It takes into consideration the distinctive and nuanced ways gender affects all sectors of our work. It also helps our staff understand the different needs and priorities of women, men, boys and girls, considering the workloads and cultural systems they operate within, in order to design effective programmes.

This is the type of approach to gender equality and environmental sustainability that Canada should champion at the Paris talks later this month. If, as Mr. Dion has noted, the environment is now a crosscutting issue in Canada’s approach to governing, so, too, should gender play a similar role in Canada’s effort to be part of the solution to climate change.

Danny Glenwright is the executive director of Action contre la Faim/Action Against Hunger Canada.

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Image: Flickr/Oxfam International — Mongkhonsawat Luengvorapant