Administrator Samantha Power’s Remarks for Gender & Climate Dialogue: The State Fragility Nexus

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Monday, August 9, 2021

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ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Good morning, everyone. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to address this group—to make the case for why it’s so important to bridge the work of climate and gender. This conversation was already an urgent one, but to host it on the day of the IPCC’s latest report forecasting a dire future if we do not address climate change makes it all the more critical.

I want to thank Kat Fotovat for organizing this series, and the White House Gender Policy Council and the National Security Council for their leadership in guiding the Biden-Harris Administration’s gender equity work, both at home and around the world.

In 2015, you might remember, there was an advocacy campaign launched by Melinda Gates and the One Foundation: “Poverty is sexist.” The point of that campaign was to try to create a link in people’s minds between the statistics about poverty that people were hearing in the news, and exactly who the burden of poverty actually fell upon.

And from incidence of HIV to access to education to household wealth, nearly every ill in the world hits women and girls harder. Well, guess what? Climate change is sexist, too.

The impacts of climate change are not gender neutral. Yes of course rising temperatures rise for us all; the increasing pace and ferocity of storms rain down on men and women alike. But it is also well established in evidence that women and girls bear a disproportionate burden of the worst impacts of climate change.

Take this jarring fact: women and girls are significantly more likely to be killed by natural and climate disasters. And the stronger or more intense the climate event, the larger the gender gap between men and women’s mortality. For example, when a category five cyclone, Sidr, hit Bangladesh in 2007, women deaths outnumber men five to one.

This isn’t because of any meaningful biological differences; it’s because of harmful gender norms women face around the world. Women are more often expected to be home when disaster strikes, looking after children or elders; they can be subjected to dress codes which restrict their ability to move quickly; they’re even less likely to be taught how to swim.

The other big reason climate change hits women harder is because they represent the majority of the world’s smallholder farmers, and rising temperatures and irregular rains are wreaking havoc on the world’s food systems. When droughts shrivel the crops that women can grow, or when floods drown them, women are deprived of one of few opportunities they have to earn income.

And because in so many countries women are unable to own land or put their name on land titles, they are more susceptible to land grabs, and unable to secure the loans they need to introduce climate-smart agricultural practices or buy climate-resistant seeds.

Here’s another thing the data tell us: when it gets hotter, men and women farmers react differently. A study in Tanzania showed that when agricultural communities faced heat stress, men reduced their time in the field. The women? They rolled up their sleeves. They actually increased their time in the field. More tilling, more planting, more weeding, more harvesting. This isn’t a story of grit and resilience. Sadly, it’s just another sign that women don’t have other options to make money and feed their families, while men do.

There’s more data out there about the disparate impacts of climate change on women and girls. When climate stress hits, the first sacrifices families make are usually the chickens and smaller animals, the livestock women and girls typically manage. As climate change destroys local resources, women have to travel farther to collect water or firewood, putting them at greater risk of being subjected to gender-based violence. And income constraints from poorer crop yields means more girls will get pulled out of school and pushed into child marriages.

The problem is not the evidence; the problem is the approach. Because climate policy can be so focused on the walloping amount of emissions—and the urgent need to meet a set of ambitious goals—a lot of the focus is on reaching those targets rather than on who is suffering. Gender and climate experts are often confined to their respective silos, rather than working together to address what are inherently intertwined problems. And the real shame of this approach is that empowering women as climate leaders will help us hit those targets. While as I have argued here, it is essential we see clearly the effects of climate change on women and girls,we also must see women and girls as the champions who will help us actually beat it.

At the grassroots, women are already leaders in USAID programs that are helping us reduce waste, adopt climate-friendly no-till agricultural practices, plant trees and reforest the Amazon, and move away from charcoal as a fuel source. And at a senior level, research shows that the more women are in parliament, the more likely they are to ratify environmental treaties, reform land use policies and bring more of the environment under protection.

Whether you are a climate expert or a gender expert, I invite you to connect with our experts at USAID in the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Hub, who have been at the forefront of research and programing at the intersection of climate and gender for years and are equipped and ready to provide technical support and resources to the interagency.

We also want to hear from all of you. USAID is committing to gender-responsive climate action in its new Climate Strategy to be unveiled at COP26 and we invite the input of our colleagues. Together, we can break apart these silos between gender and climate, recognize the crucial role women have to play in mitigating and adapting to climate change, empower them to lead, and by doing so, ensure our fight against this crisis is more effective.

Climate change is sexist; our response shouldn’t be. Thank you.

Last updated: September 23, 2021

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