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What Climate Change Means for African Women
December 10, 2015

Nokhawulezile Ketse, a 46-year-old widow, carries a water bucket on her head as she makes her way home with two of her eight children, from the nearest water collection point in rural Tsolo, South Africa, Aug, 6, 2002. Ketse, like most of the villagers, walks almost a mile every day to collect unpurified water for the family's daily needs. The supply of safe drinking water will be an important point under discussion at the World Summit on Sustainable Development being held in Johannesburg, South Africa, Aug. 26 until Sept. 4. (AP Photo/Obed Zilwa)
According to the U.N., women in sub-Saharan Africa spend an average of 40 billion hours a year collecting water. (© AP Images)

In Tanzania, because of drought, a girl must walk farther for water than her mother did years before. The extra time means she can’t go to school.
In Mozambique, flooding leaves standing water in which mosquitoes breed. A malaria outbreak follows, in a place where the disease had not been seen before. A mother is more vulnerable to the sickness at the same time she must care for her sick family.

These aren’t imagined scenarios. They’re outcomes of weather patterns associated with climate change. And the U.N. and the World Health Organization say those changes impact women more than men, especially in developing countries.

“The impact of climate change on women is huge,” Priscilla Achakpa, executive director of the Women Environmental Programme, told Vogue Magazine of her home country of Nigeria. “The men are forced to migrate and they leave the women, who are now the caregivers because they find they cannot leave the children.”

Women “are among the most vulnerable to climate change,” concludes a U.N. Population Fund report, “partly because in many countries they make up the larger share of the agricultural workforce and partly because they tend to have access to fewer income-earning opportunities.”

“In Kenya, where I work,” said environmentalist and 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow Asha Shaaban, “women walk up to 10 kilometers in search of water. This is time taken that could be used for other things. They could use that time to take care of children or bring income to the household.”
When combined with economic and social discrimination, climate change threatens women’s rights to education, information, water, food, health care and freedom from violence, says Eleanor Blomstrom of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization.

Blomstrom stresses the importance of involving women in the response to climate change — “from the local project level to the international policy level and everywhere in between. “At COP21 in Paris,” she said, “the Women and Gender Constituency is showcasing solutions that are sustainable, women-led, safe, promote women’s participation and do not increase potential for conflict.”