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Opinion

Follow Greta and listen to women in fight against climate change

Poor and marginalized women are most affected by it but least heard

| Pacific Islands
An Indian woman walks to get water from a communal tube well at Raichi Wadi village, India: women and girls are responsible for water collection in 80% of households without access to piped water.   © AP

When young climate activist Greta Thunberg rose to prominence in 2018, having set off the largest climate protests ever seen, she also highlighted the gendered nature of climate change.

After all, when climate disaster strikes, as it does with increasing frequency, it is the world's most vulnerable people who are most heavily affected. Globally, women and children wield less socioeconomic power and are more likely to experience poverty than men, which often translates to disproportionate risk and burden placed on women and children in times of climate crisis.

In fact, U.N. figures estimate that 80% of people impacted by climate change are women. That is why, ahead of International Women's Day this Sunday, we need to pay more attention to the risks climate change poses to women, but also the way women are able to inform and improve global responses to it.

Climate change amplifies existing inequalities and is felt differently by men and women, particularly in settings affected by marked social, political and economic inequality. This imbalance is magnified across Asia, a region that is home to five of the 10 countries most affected by climate change on the Global Climate Risk Index.

Of the 736 million people who live below the poverty line, approximately 29% live in South Asia and 6% in East Asia and the Pacific. While poverty across the region has sharply declined since 1990, progress is discordant and more than a quarter of the region's population remains economically insecure, placing women and children at the epicenter of the climate crisis.

Structural biases and socially constructed roles place an excessive burden of unpaid care, domestic duties and agricultural production on women, often increasing women's vulnerability and exposure to, and preparedness for, climate-related events.

This rift is more pronounced in less economically developed regions where women are dependent on local natural resources for their livelihood and often have limited mobility and unequal access to resources in rural areas.

In a message to mark the International Day of Rural Women, observed annually on October 15, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: "Listening to rural women and amplifying their voices is central to spreading knowledge about climate change and urging governments, businesses and community leaders to act."

According to the U.N., at least 455 million people across the Asia-Pacific region do not have access to electricity, and more than two billion rely on unsafe facilities and fuels for cooking.

This is a considerable challenge for the women who are responsible for gathering and producing food, collecting water and sourcing fuel for heating and cooking. Globally, women and girls are responsible for water collection in 80% of households without access to piped water.

Such a burden is only heightened in times of climate-related events, such as drought, which increases the distance that women must walk to collect, secure, distribute and store water and other resources.

Climate change is recognized as a threat multiplier, in that it exacerbates and contributes to other problems, and in times of crisis it exposes women to increased risks of violence, sexual and domestic abuse, trafficking and conflict.

Women also face greater risk due to their unique nutritional needs, especially when they are pregnant or breastfeeding, as natural resources such as water become compromised.

Although women are forced to bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change, they have been systematically excluded from decision-making mechanisms and denied agency in deciding when and how to overcome the vulnerabilities they face.

This is a serious omission. Across all sectors of society, women's representation is not an option but a necessity. The extent of the gap in female representation in legislatures across Asia is particularly alarming.

Female representation across the entirety of Asia sits at approximately 19.5%. In South Asia, the representation of women in legislative bodies is just 17%. Japan ranks the lowest among G-20 nations for women in parliament.

A woman wades through knee-high sea water that flooded her house in Kiribati, pictured in September 2015: it is the world's most vulnerable people who are most heavily affected.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

The nations that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, Papua New Guinea, Micronesia and Vanuatu, have no female lawmakers.

Despite the insidious structural and social gender inequalities that exist across Asia and the world, women are overcoming the barriers preventing them from meaningfully contributing to society. Moreover, a single teenage girl has become the most prominent figure in the world against climate inaction.

Thunberg reminds us that not only are women at the forefront of climate action on the streets, but they are arguably the most powerful change agents in realizing social, economic and climate resilience benefits. According to a report by McKinsey Global Institute released in September 2015, in a full potential scenario in which women play an identical role in labor markets to men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26%, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.

Drawing on women's experiences, knowledge and skills and supporting their empowerment will make climate change responses more effective. And this may very well start by listening to girls like Greta.

Natalie Kyriacou is a social entrepreneur, management consultant and the CEO of My Green World, a Melbourne-based social enterprise dedicated to addressing global wildlife and environmental challenges through innovative, youth-focused education.

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