The dramatic changes to weather patterns as a result of climate change will have dire consequences for agriculture, the major source of food and income for Africa’s small-scale farmers, most of them women.
Millions of people will be forced to migrate, seeking better environments to sustain themselves and their families as the land becomes unproductive. Not enough is being done in national adaptation strategies to acknowledge the different gender dimensions of climate change and migration.
Take for instance the crisis in the Horn of Africa. On July 20, the US declared famine in two regions of Southern Somalia. Many fled their homes to other parts of Somalia, while others fled to neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya. We all saw on television horrific images of Somali mothers watching their children dying.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in 1990 that “the single greatest impact of climate change might be on migration”.
The panel further mentions that millions of people could be displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agricultural disruption.
Women are disproportionally affected by climate change. Their ability to escape these challenges is limited compared to men because of their dual role as providers of income and carers to their families.
Migration may be temporary, caused by natural disasters, or permanent, due to irreversible damage to the environment. According to the International Organisation for Migration, droughts and natural disasters displaced 42 million people in 2010.
It is projected that by 2050 there will be even more “environmental refugees” in the world. Professor Norman Myers, of Oxford University, predicts that when global warming takes hold, as many as 200 million people could be overtaken by disruptions of monsoon systems, severe droughts and rising sea levels.
Although both women and men are likely to migrate to urban areas and experience the same difficulties in finding employment, housing and social services, women are also likely to experience gender-based discrimination.
From a social and economic standpoint, rural women could be more empowered and given more autonomy when men go to urban areas to seek better opportunities. On the other hand, Professor Sylvia Chant of the London School of Economics notes that “women may not be able to take major decisions over household production or livelihoods in the home village itself without first obtaining permission from their absent partner or his natal kin”.
It is distressing that there has been a failure to fully acknowledge that women are most vulnerable to sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence due to forced migration. Illegal border-crossing, whether in boats or on foot, presents many safety risks to those involved, including loss of life, robbery as well as rape.
Fleeing from droughts and going to stay in refugee camps also exposes women to sexual abuse.
The International Organisation for Migration’s Dr Erick Ventura notes that a number of factors will contribute to a better understanding of forced migration as a result of climate change.
Capacity building through improved knowledge, preparedness and emergency interventions as well as assisted return for migrants would result.
There is also a need for improvement in border management and more coherent and comprehensive migration policies that recognise that migration is not always voluntary.
Women and men fleeing natural and environmental disasters do so not because they want to, but because they are seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
Awareness at policy-making level that climate change and migration are not gender neutral will go a long way in ensuring that “climate refugees” are treated in a more appropriate and inclusive manner.
* Tsedu is an intern at Gender Links. This piece is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.