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Will Climate Change Make Life Harder for Girls?

A new study suggests that climate change will make life even more arduous for adolescent girls in the developing world



Syed Touhid Hassan/Wikimedia Commons

In many developing countries, teenage girls' days are filled with hard labor as they enter into an adulthood of second-class citizenship. Now, a study finds, climate change threatens to make girls' lives even harder.

The report from the nonprofit Plan U.K., as well as the U.K. Department for International Development, focuses exclusively on the developing world's 500 million adolescent girls. They are the ones, the authors note, who walk hours to find water and increasingly rare firewood, and are disproportionately killed or displaced in natural disasters.

It recommends increasing access to high-quality education as a means toward helping girls address gender discrimination as well as finding paid work and building more resilient families. That, in turn, the report argues, will help reduce girls' vulnerability to climate change-related weather disasters.

"Inevitably children everywhere are badly affected, and girls in particular bear the greater burden. Their lives, prospects and human rights must be protected," former President of Ireland and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson wrote in introducing the report.

As the U.N. climate treaty talks wear on, she argued, negotiators and policymakers must better take into account the needs of young women, adding, "In many national and international fora and in planning at more local levels children's voices are still absent. Decisions on climate change must be inclusive and participatory if they are to work."

The report draws on private interviews with about 60 girls between the ages of 13 and 18 in flood- and cyclone-prone regions of Bangladesh as well as in drought-prone areas of Ethiopia. Living, as the authors say, "on the front lines of climate change," the young women revealed some common experiences.

Last to leave the home
For example, the chairman of a local government office in Bangladesh noted, since women are responsible for livestock and the household, they often leave a home later than boys -- or refuse to leave at all -- when a cyclone or other disaster hits.

"There is a mass tomb of the victims of Cyclone Sidr nearby, and most are women and girls," Sultan Mahamud said of the 2007 cyclone that killed more than 3,000 people.

The report is part of a growing body of academic and advocacy literature aimed at focusing attention on gender. It's an issue that activists say has been largely ignored amid discussions of cutting greenhouse gases, industry offsets and carbon markets. But it could take on greater significance as governments develop a Green Climate Fund to help vulnerable countries protect themselves against climate impacts.

By focusing on teenage girls, the authors stress, they are not making light of the impacts climate change will have on boys and men. In fact, they note, men often die in greater numbers during certain types of disasters because they are more likely to carry out dangerous rescues.

But in a world where 75 million girls between the ages of 10 and 19 drop out of grade school, and one of every three girls in developing countries is married by the age of 18, the report argues that young women face unique risks.

According to the report, women and girls accounted for 90 percent of deaths from a 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, and about 80 percent of deaths from the 2004 Asian tsunami. Across Africa, women and children accounted for more than 75 percent of the 1.5 million left homeless during rains and flooding in 2007.

Workloads likely to increase
Meanwhile, as rising global temperatures make water and timber more scarce, workloads for young girls are likely to increase.

One 14-year-old Ethiopian girl named Melkam interviewed for the report said that in periods of drought, she wakes up at 4 a.m. to collect firewood. That hourlong process leads to a two-hour walk to a market in the town of Lalibela.

"And if we don't manage to sell the firewood in the morning, we will have to stay in the market all day and it stops me from going to school," Melkam said.

The report argues that existing programs aimed at helping countries deal with climate change don't deal directly with gender issues, and maintains that global financing mechanisms need to specifically address the rights of girls.

The authors wrote: "Climate change and gender must not be seen in isolation, but should be addressed across all government departments -- including education and finance ministries."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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