That was the tweet by Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, on May 14th, 2016, that unleashed a storm of internet mockery and insults.
One user commented, “women are more vulnerable because when it rains our hair looks like crap ...weather ...not stupid climate change eh”.
Another wrote, “Sounds like she is saying women are weaker and more susceptible to CO2 delusions, fears & hysteria. Very odd”.
Even though we are all (hopefully) aware that Twitter isn’t a perfect representation of our society, McKenna’s claim that the environment and gender are linked awoke strong, visceral feelings of confusion, anger and annoyance. It may be hard to understand how climate change can somehow disproportionately affect one gender. But the question remains: does McKenna’s claim carry any substance?
The intricate relationship between gender and the environment
Demographic and scientific statistics from the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs suggest that McKenna’s claim is backed by substantial amounts of evidence. Women are especially subject to the consequences of climate change, which pose increased dangers to women in the event of a natural disaster, and can directly affect their livelihoods. This is mostly linked to the tougher economic living conditions that women face: women are more likely to be economically dependent on their spouses, impoverished as they age, earn less income as single mothers than single fathers, be unemployed, and if they are working, be more likely to take on vulnerable (low or no income) jobs. Poverty then pushes these women into more dangerous, dilapidated neighbourhoods that are both more likely to be harmed by environmental catastrophes and less likely to recover and rebuild.
These claims are backed up by statistical trends that demonstrate the gendered nature of interactions with the environment. For instance, the United Nations claims that “in sub-Saharan Africa, the person usually collecting water is a woman in 65% of rural households and a man in 10% of households”. The 2008 cyclone that hit Myanmar saw 85 000 deaths and 53 000 disappearances, 61% of whom were female.
Despite being disproportionately affected by natural disasters and human-created environmental problems, women often have less influence in environmental decision-making. For instance, women are underrepresented in environmental management and policy-making, comprising of only 28% of senior environment ministers in Europe, and 27% of officers elected to provide scientific and technological advice for the Kyoto Protocol. When facing challenges that disproportionately affect women around the world, it seems illogical and almost painful to see these issues and their solutions being discussed primarily by men.
Canada is not immune to these patterns. Only 6 women have ever served as one of the 26 Canadian environment ministers since the department’s inception in 1971. Yet Canadian women have not feared to fight for change: the Idle No More movement, which seeks to “honour indigenous sovereignty and to protect the environment”, sprouted from the work of four women, three of whom are indigenous. The movement protests the neglect for native communities in addressing issues such as contaminated drinking water, deforestation, and mining on native land, as well as the resulting poverty and mental hardship environmental issues create.
What makes this issue difficult to tackle, however, is that these trends don’t simply appear out-of-the-blue, nor can they be traced to a single source. Rather, they are layered, complex and interconnected, which is why an entire academic field and social movement has been dedicated to studying “the intersection of gender, socio-economics and the environment”: ecofeminism. The problems that ecofeminism seeks to solve are the consequences of the multitude of actions that societies adopt and preserve, ranging from cultural beliefs about women's’ roles in the home, inequalities in education, economic underdevelopment, and a lack of attention for women’s development by government officials.
Equitable change starts with understanding
The road to gender equality requires that we inform ourselves and appreciate the various histories, struggles, and challenges that women from all walks of life have faced and are currently attempting to overcome.
We have to ask ourselves how our beliefs, cultures, and political decisions influence the intersection of gender and nature. What has our role as a society been in perpetuating disparities, and what is our role now in correcting them? This blog series seeks to explore these questions as it delves into relationship that women share with the environment, for it is clear that nature does not exist in a vacuum secluded from our social reality.
Simply put, environmental issues are also feminist issues.
Caroline Nguyen is an intern at GreenPAC and a fourth year student at the University of Toronto, pursuing a specialization in Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies and a minor in French. Outside of class, she works for Canadian federal government and currently manages an environmentally sustainable and student-run café on campus, seeking to encourage local and green food service in the community.