Women and the environment: The risks and reactions
Climate change is a critical issue in the 21st century, and as we observe Women’s History Month we should bear in mind the effect of the environment on women. Women make up the majority of the earth’s population, and are most vulnerable to changes in climate and environment.
“The poor are not living in industrialized countries where the environment is distant – where you have to go out to appreciate it. Our lives depend upon it,” said Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.
Problems such as air pollution, contaminated water, lack of adequate sanitation, disease vectors and degraded ecosystems are all risk factors for women and their children. In 2005, 1.1 billion people lacked access to safe and affordable drinking water, nearly 20 percent of the earth’s population, while 40 percent of the earth’s population lacked clean sanitation. Approximately 1.8 million children die every year as a result of diarrhea caused by lack of clean water and proper sanitation. That is an average of 4,500 children per day.
Air pollution can aggravate symptoms of cardiovascular and lung disease, and can increase blood pressure in women 50 and older more so than in their male counterparts. Indoor pollution has been named a “silent killer” among women. Approximately 1.5 women die annually as they inhale poisonous gases while cooking or heating their homes. Post-menopausal women who were exposed to lead early in life often suffer bone loss. This exposure also releases lead into the blood stream, which can precipitate kidney failure. Nearly half of all people in developing countries suffer from health problems caused by water and sanitation deficits — and most of them are women.
Women play a critical role in the quality of the environment and often depend on natural resources. In places such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, women are responsible for 60 percent to 80 percent of crops produced. When climate change affects their crops, domestic burdens are increased, which includes additional work to fetch water or collect fuel and fodder. As these domestic burdens increase, some young girls walk as much as 20 miles a day and because of time and fatigue, are unable to attend school. Without proper education, the needs and opinions of young women are seldom heard.
The World Health Organization encourages simple filtration and disinfection of household water. Improved or energy-efficient appliances to reduce exposures to indoor air pollution and washing hands with soap about 20 seconds can reduce diarrhea related illnesses by 40 percent. Education also is crucial innovative prevention and treatment protocols need to be developed and implemented for women at high risk for environmental-related illnesses. Women in regions such as Africa and central Asia who are informed about environmental risks present in their homes and communities are better equipped to take appropriate action to reduce or eliminate exposure.
The United Nations says an estimated $9 billion investment would achieve universal access to clean water and sanitation. Consider that Europe spends more than $11 billion a year on ice cream. Every dollar invested in water yields an economic return of eight dollars in saved time, increased productivity and reduced health-care costs. Our economy cannot – and will not – achieve maximum sustainability without proper care of women.
Nearly all U.N. millennium development goals have implications for women and the environment. Since 2005, the U.N. has supported women’s roles in protecting biodiversity, indigenous knowledge and overseeing environmental resources.
In order to achieve true environmental justice, we need to empower women. As we take steps to sustain our environment we must not further undermine women’s increasing vulnerability on the planet. Women can play a larger role in the future of a sustainable environment and can be real catalysts for change. From the green-belt movement in Africa to women working for environmental justice in Southeast Asia, around the world women are making a difference.
(Kathleen Rogers is president of Earth Day Network. For more information, visit www.earthday.org.)