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A Zimbabwean perspective on women and climate change

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This year, women around the world celebrate the International Women’s Day under the theme, ‘equal rights, equal opportunities: progress for all’. Women across the globe commemorate this day to reflect on their struggle for equality, justice, peace and development. It is against this backdrop that this writer decided to write on climate change, an issue whose gender dimensions and effect on everyday life need to be emphasised. As acknowledged by the 2007 Human Development report climate change threatens to erode human freedoms and limit choice.  The report further emphasizes that gender inequality intersects with climate risks and vulnerabilities.

Climate change is a scientifically proven phenomenon that includes “any change in the climate, whether due to its natural variability or as a result of human activity”  . It often manifests in extreme weather conditions that include prolonged droughts, water shortages, soil erosion, erratic rainfall, severe cyclones, hurricanes and floods. While the issue of climate change has been discussed in various forums throughout the world, grass root communities particularly rural women have little knowledge on the subject and how it affects their day to day lives. Women have lower sources of income and fewer opportunities than men thus their capacities and knowledge to deal with shift in climate conditions differ from those of men.

Climate change as a development subject matter is critical to African populations as 70% of the population are small holder farmers and rely on agriculture for livelihoods. The majority of these people are women who contribute immensely to food security levels.  In the Zimbabwean context, where the economy is agro based and has the largest group of people in farming activities as women (86%), climate change is critical and requires thorough articulation for the understanding of women.

Women in rural areas are highly dependent on local natural resources for their livelihood. They are the primary producers of staple food and other cash crops for sustenance of families. Their disadvantaged position in society however, increases their vulnerability in times of distress for instance during drought and floods.  Women’s limited access to resources such as land, water and finance, make them highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. It is therefore crucial that such important aspects of development like change in climatic conditions and adaptation measures are well communicated for their understanding. There is need to ensure that the ordinary Zimbabwean woman understands the differences in weather patterns, how it affects agriculture activities and also coping mechanisms.

Effects of climate change are therefore not gender neutral. The gender differences between men and women imply that their vulnerabilities differ and since women are already in a disadvantaged position, effects of climate change threaten to further increase the inequality.

While highlighting the vulnerability of poor women to climate change, it should also be pointed out that women have an important role to play to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Women particularly at grass root level have acquired skills (e.g. in water management, forest management) through experience that can be tapped into in dealing with climate change effects.

The government therefore needs to consider taking a gender approach in design and implementation of policies on how to adapt and mitigate climate change as this is crucial to effectively address the needs of both men and women as they relate to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in particular, Goal 1, to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, Goal 3 to promote gender equality and Goal 7 to ensure environmental sustainability.  Women’s equal participation in climate change negotiation processes will ensure that their needs, perspectives and expertise are equally taken into account.

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