LONDON (AlertNet) – At the intersection of two of the world’s most vulnerable groups – children and women – adolescent girls may end up bearing the biggest burden of climate change impacts, according to a new report.
In times of economic hardship – often caused by droughts, floods or other natural disasters – girls regularly suffer from a lack educational opportunities, sexual violence, and early and forced marriages, all consequences of what the report calls “the double jeopardy brought on by gender and age.”
While recent research shows that women and children deserve special attention in climate change legislation, “girls often fall out between both camps,” according to Kanwal Ahluwalia, a co-author of the study and an expert in gender-equality policy with Plan UK, a children’s charity.
In many countries, women’s relatively stifled freedoms put them in harm’s way when it comes to climate change, she said.
Climate change “very clearly exacerbates those inequalities,” Ahluwalia said. “We’ve seen time after time how women and girls are affected disproportionately.”
The researchers sat down with girls between ages 13 and 18 from cyclone-prone areas of Bangladesh and drought-prone parts of Ethiopia to discuss issues including global warming, disasters and education.
They found that when their families are stressed, girls are often pulled out of school to allow their mothers to go to work, or to get jobs themselves to help support their families – in some cases as prostitutes, particularly if the family’s survival is threatened.
The loss of education that results widens the already-existing gap in key survival skills between boys and girls. Studies have found that a lack of basic skills, like knowing how to swim or climb trees, puts women more at risk from disasters.
In fact, in Bangladesh, women made up 90 percent of the more than 138,000 people killed by a record 1991 cyclone. More than 80 percent of the victims the 2004 Asian tsunami also were women, according to the report.
Girls that do survive often become orphans, and then face new risks while staying in shelters without anyone to protect them, the study explains.
“I know two girls who were raped going to fetch water. When you go far and there are not many people around, it happens,” said a 16-year-old girl from Ethiopia interviewed in the paper.
According to the Disasters Emergency Committee, cases of rape and sexual attacks against women have doubled since last July in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya. Most of the people in the camp are escaping conflict, drought and hunger in Somalia and other parts of East Africa.
Incidences of sexual abuse skyrocket during chaotic post-disaster periods, the report finds, as so do early and forced marriages, in which the girls become “famine brides,” essentially exchanged for money that families can use to buy food.After talking to girls from Ethiopia and Bangladesh, the study researchers found that three needs rang true across cultures: greater access to quality, useful education; better protection from violence; and increased participation in climate change decision making and preparedness plans.
The researchers recommend that policy makers take those needs into account when creating laws and plans to deal with crises.
“We talk about reaching the poorest of the poor and trying to help improve these people’s lives, so I think it’s a call to action … We can’t just look at poor people as a homogenous whole but we need a more nuanced understanding of how people are influenced by climate change and tailor our responses to that,” said Kelly Hawrylyshyn, one of the study’s co-authors and a disaster risk reduction advisor at Plan UK.
But while the report focuses on developing nations, Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician and researcher with the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, said the threat to children from climate change is not limited to developing countries.
“Climate change is a matter of great concern for our children’s well-being right now and for all children. And that includes children in the developed world,” said Bernstein, who published a paper in April summarizing climate-related risks for children.
All areas of world will experience shifts in rainfall and sea level but in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria and malnutrition are already widespread, the youngest generation may not be able to cope with another stress, he said.
THE ‘CAMEL’S BACK’
He compared the effects of climate change to “a straw on a camel’s back” – just one more problem to face for children who are already in bad shape.
“Climate change tends to make these problems worse, make nutritional status worse, make diseases worse, so it really is a straw on the camel’s back in many cases,” he said. And “particularly with food and water (it) is more like a lead weight – it can really break that camel’s back,” he said.
Not getting enough of the right nutrients, for instance, can cause iron deficiency that can significantly impair a child’s intelligence for the rest of his or her life, he said. In India, more than 70 percent of children already suffer from iron deficiency, according to the World Health Organization.
“It’s not just that children are bearing a huge burden of diseases from these problems right now, but that for many of these diseases, these burdens will multiply over their lifespans,” Bernstein said.
While “connecting the dots” – showing the relationship between individual events, like droughts or floods, and climate change – can be difficult, “science is robust enough to tell us that the risk of such events happening is significantly increased with climate change,” he said.
“Climate change is a matter of public health. It is not a matter (for) the future alone, and it is particularly problematic for children,” he said.
He worries particularly that the impacts of climate change will eat into progress already made in improving children’s lives.
“It seems to be a tremendous act of folly for us to have acted so hard and so long to improve the nutritional status of children around the world (and then) let climate change come along and wipe off all of these gains that we have made,” he said.
Like Bernstein, the authors of the Plan UK report emphasized the need for legislators to make sure these most vulnerable groups are accounted for in climate change planning and preparation.
Now, said Hawrylyshyn, is “our window of opportunity to get it right.”
Soumya Karlamangla is an AlertNet Climate intern.