Why women’s rights matter in COP27

The world must factor in the losses women disproportionately suffer, from education to security, due to climate change.

Two Maasai women walk back home from a market in Ol Kiramatian, near Lake Magadi, in Kenya.
Maasai women walk back home from a market near Lake Magadi, in Kenya. Parts of the country have experienced four consecutive seasons with inadequate rain, with dire effects for people and animals [Brian Inganga/AP Photo]

This has been a year of climate catastrophes for every corner of the globe. From floods in Pakistan and Nigeria to the worst droughts on record across the Horn of Africa, no one on the planet is insulated against our rapidly worsening climate. Among the most disproportionately affected are women and girls. Yet their story is all too often just a footnote in the news.

We know about the gendered impact of climate change from our work across the world. We have seen time and time again how women and girls are pushed to drop out of school or marry early to help manage the financial stress that families face during droughts or floods. New ActionAid research in Kenya, Rwanda, Zambia and Nigeria has found that climate change is also increasing gender-based violence and damaging women’s mental health.

As a warming planet leads to a rise in humanitarian emergencies and displacement, women and girls must not be left to pay the steepest price.

In northern Kenya, Rosemary — a former farmer whom ActionAid works with — now needs to walk several miles farther than before to find water. Her community is facing extreme drought after consecutive failed rains, with 90 percent of all open water sources in their area now dry. This increased burden and the distances she has to go put her at greater risk of violence as she needs to travel, often outside daylight hours, to areas where she has no protection.

Meanwhile, the drought and the invasion of a crop-eating worm pest have already destroyed her farm, once her main source of income. This has forced Rosemary into animal husbandry, but she faces the challenges of an unpredictable climate here too. Unable to access water and grassland, two of her cows recently died, pushing her further into financial precarity.

Farmer incomes have dropped sharply in Rosemary’s community because of the failed rains. This is leading to girls being taken out of school — and in some cases married off — to ease family expenditure and help to bring in income. In precarious times of climate stress like this, girls are 20 percent more likely to be married early than in times of stability, putting women’s rights to education and liberty at risk.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Women and girls on the front line of the climate crisis, like Rosemary, know what actions are needed and are important agents of change. Rosemary leads a local activist network that tackles violence against women and girls and provides guidance to young women on their human rights. This support is key for women and girls navigating the knock-on impacts of climate change and drought.

Women like Rosemary are capable of building communities that are resilient to the challenges of climate change. But they need support to scale up their work and the opportunity to help decide how international, national and local climate finance is spent.

Yet, sadly, we know that the voices of the women on the front lines are not sufficiently heard in the grand halls and behind the closed doors where the big decisions are made, including at the ongoing COP27 climate change conference. This is particularly worrying in 2022 as the impacts of climate change escalate while international support for women like Rosemary remains scarce.

Industrialised nations that have contributed the most to the climate crisis are yet to deliver on their promised — yet inadequate — funding to help mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change in the future. These failed promises, combined with the lack of finance to support climate impacts now — known as loss and damage finance — means that the odds are loaded against a funding paradigm that accounts for the additional risks and consequences women and girls face.

While the United Kingdom is increasing its financial support for climate adaptation, it has not pledged new and additional loss and damage funding to countries like Kenya, which is battling its worst drought on record.

This is unacceptable. Climate finance needs to cover reparations for the lost years of girls’ education, address women’s lost security, and compensate for their failed crop yields. We need progress on these issues at COP27, not yet another year of kicking the can down the road.

World leaders need to pay attention to stories like Rosemary’s. We need less rhetoric and a greater focus on women’s rights and actions to help them thrive and bring their communities out of poverty. Without this, the gendered injustice of climate change and the silent crisis for women and girls will only get worse.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.