Milikini Failautusi, 30, lives on the Pacific island of Tuvalu. She has become virtually a nomad in her own country after rising tides forced her to leave her ancestral atoll and move to the main island, Funafuti.
She is now a climate activist. She can no longer visit her home island, yet remains committed to her country with a burning desire to prevent her own children from inheriting an underwater ghost town. This is not just Milikini’s story.
While climate change threatens livelihoods and security around the world, it is women who are bearing the brunt. Women predominate in the workforces of many sectors that are most vulnerable to climate change such as agriculture, livestock and fishing.
To make things worse, inequalities mean women are more likely to suffer dislocation to their lives as a result of flooding and drought. According to the UN, about 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. More than 70% of those displaced by the 2010 flooding in Pakistan were women and children.
Among those who lost their lives in India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka as a result of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, three times more women died than men. But why?
Rigid gender roles in the region meant men in the region were more likely to be able to swim than women. Furthermore, women were more likely to be caring for children and family members during the critical evacuation time.
Women who do survive such disasters often end up in unclean evacuation centres where they can be exposed to gender-based violence and cannot access health services. Research by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found climate change and environmental impacts are increasing violence against women and girls including domestic abuse, child marriage and sexual assault.
In many societies, encouraging progress is being made towards gender equality, but climate change can stop or even reverse this progress.
If business-as-usual climate action continues, there are dangers that the gains of gender equality will be lost. There is a risk that as climate change accelerates, gender roles could become more entrenched. More men may be forced to move in search of better job opportunities, while women are left behind to care for members of their extended families and bear the burden of household responsibilities. Those who have to remain in more disaster-prone or vulnerable locations as a result are then likely to experience greater poverty, have their livelihoods destroyed and suffer increasing health issues.
We know that any attempts to restore environmental degradation and lower the risks posed by global heating are likely to fail if they do not take into account gender inequality.
We know, from a report published last week by WaterAid, that climate finance is still not reaching the poorest and most vulnerable people, who are likely to be most affected by climate change. – about half of all countries receive less than $5 (GBP3.86) a year for each person.
In 2016, a UN report found that only 0.01% of all worldwide funding went towards projects addressing both climate change and gender, despite specific provisions in the 2015 Paris agreement for women’s empowerment.
Such statistics are sobering, but there are some encouraging signs of progress. Developed countries have pledged $100bn a year in climate finance by 2020 to help developing nations cut emissions and adapt to problems such as worsening droughts, flooding and sea-level rise. The Green Climate Fund, the main channel through which climate finance is dispersed, stipulates that all grants must treat women’s needs as a priority.
The Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub, based in Mauritius, is already making impressive progress in unlocking much-needed resources for countries and communities that would not otherwise have the capacity to lodge successful applications for funding already pledged.
At the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Rwanda in June, we can expect leaders to consider further innovative approaches to tackle environmental priorities, including the strategy proposed by women’s affairs ministers, which focuses on gender and climate change.
The strategy is designed to encourage countries to collect and analyse data disaggregated according to criteria such as sex and age in order to devise improved climate solutions and to target them more accurately.
Women like Milikini need more than speeches, however sincere. They need urgent collective action to tackle all aspects and impacts of the global climate crisis. Women on the frontline must be on an equal footing at all levels so that they, their families, their communities and the nations in which they live and work can survive and thrive. In the Commonwealth, we are working towards just that.