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Thoughts for International Women’s Day

Cathie Lloyd

Last year the United Nations declared access to a clean and healthy environment to be a universal human right. We hear about the effects of climate change wildfires and floods in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand but little about the effects of the increasingly volatile climate in Africa most exposed to the crisis, but which did not contribute to it initially. Reparations for ‘loss and damage’ has become a major theme at UN conferences.

Reliable agricultural production, food security and the management of water resources are threatened by climate change. Women make up roughly half the agricultural workforce in African countries, cultivating small holdings and selling their produce at local markets. They are less likely to own the land they work than men, so many government aid packages bypass them. In Cote d’Ivoire women are 70% of agricultural workers but they own only 3% of the land. Everywhere, women are expected to work a ‘double shift’ in cultivating crops and doing domestic labour. Research in Malawi has shown that the response to rising food prices and shortages is often to withdraw older girls from school to help on farms and at home. Their education is less valued than that of their brothers. Some targeted projects help to combat these problems.

Women are mainly responsible for collecting and managing water. Floods or droughts make this work more difficult. If rains fail, whole crops can be ruined, and livestock sicken and die. New diseases affect livestock and plant life.

This compounding of existing difficulties in everyday life, gives rise to mental and physical illness. More than 86% of the women surveyed last year in Malawi[1] reported depression, worry and guilt about the future for their children.

Women are not just vulnerable: international aid agencies acknowledge their role as first-responders in disasters, eager to innovate. The Liberian government has been working with the Barefoot College of India to train ‘rural grandmothers’ to install and maintain solar power in areas which lost access to electricity during the civil war. Providing light when night falls impacts on safety and the ability to do schoolwork as well as reducing the use of polluting, unhealthy fossil fuels like kerosene.[2] In Kenya there are schemes to train women living with HIV/Aids to work in kitchen gardens, construct energy saving devices for cooking and make renewable items for personal hygiene.

The loss and damage fund adopted at recent UN conferences may help women who played no part in contributing to the climate crisis but who are suffering the consequences.

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