On 8 March every year, the world marks International Women’s Day. It is an opportunity to recognize the achievements of women globally, and to take stock of our progress towards gender equity, and of the challenges that still lie ahead.
This year’s theme, “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”, celebrates the achievements of women and girls who are leading efforts on climate change adaptation, mitigation and response to build a more sustainable future.
It could not come at a more opportune time, with climate change manifesting in increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, changing rainfall patterns, and more frequent and severe extreme weather conditions. Compounded by the impacts of the COVID-19, these conditions have direct consequences for the key determinants of health, negatively impacting air and water quality, food security, and human habitat and shelter.
Women and girls, especially those living in rural, poor and remote vulnerable areas in low- and middle-income countries, including Small Island Developing States, are more susceptible to changing climatic conditions. Due to their gender, they bear a disproportionate burden of the effects of climate change in their social and reproductive roles.
In Africa, increasing incidence of extreme weather conditions means women and girls devote time that could be better spent on productive ventures catering to the basic needs of their families. This includes provision of water, food, and fuel for lighting, heating and cooking.
Such extreme events also have direct and indirect health repercussions for women and girls, including the interruption of health services. Emerging evidence suggests that air pollution and heat contribute to poor reproductive health outcomes, due to their impacts on cellular physiology and organ response. Potential consequences include infertility, intrauterine growth retardation, low birth weight, perinatal mortality, pre-term delivery and associated pregnancy complications. Disruptions due to drought, floods, conflicts over natural resources and forced migration are an added concern.
Indirectly, environmental degradation and changing climate patterns raise the risk for the emergence and re-emergence of diseases such as Dengue fever, Chikugunya and the Zika viruses, and for exacerbating the spread of water- and vector-borne diseases such as malaria, cholera and schistosomiasis – all of which disproportionately affect children and women, especially pregnant women.
Inadequate access to water can impede agricultural production, with significant potential risks for food security and consequent nutritional deficiencies and anaemia among women and girls, because of their unique nutritional needs.
Women and girls are also at higher risk for sexual violence, sexual exploitation, abuse, trafficking and intimate partner violence, along with psychological stress, anxiety and depression in response to displacements as a result of climate change events.
To address the challenges, gender-responsive action is needed, along with equitable development that recognizes and addresses the particular vulnerability of women and girls to the consequences of climate change.
It is also important to harness the power of women to effect change at community level, and in the development of policy instruments and national climate response plans. Women’s organizations must be prioritized to receive the necessary financial and technological support to make a meaningful contribution to addressing the threat, while access to land for women farmers should be assured to build food security and equitable land ownership.
Addressing the health impacts of climate change requires innovative thinking and a more holistic, population-based public health approach. As WHO, we are providing guidance and technical support to governments to ensure that health and environmental responses, including climate change strategies, are integrated, equitable and just.
In the African Region, 19 Member States have been supported to assess the capability of their health sectors to withstand the threats posed by climate change, and the same number have committed to the COP26 Health Programme for sustainable, low-carbon health systems. In addition, 22 Members States have developed national health adaptation plans.
There is still much work to be done, however, and as we mark International Women’s Day this year, I urge all stakeholders, from governments and partners to civil society and ordinary citizens, to support country-driven and gender-sensitive approaches to mitigating the impacts of climate change, especially on our vulnerable women and girls.
In closing, let us all remember that overcoming these inequities will result in better health, development and prosperity for all.
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