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Women are underrepresented in environmental decision-making: UN Women

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Women and men, in all their diversities, interact with the environment differently. For instance, evidence shows that climate change has gender differentiated impacts, employment data indicate that women rely on natural resources more than men do, and literature is plentiful on the disproportionate barriers women face to own assets, the absence of which can limit their capacity to cope with disasters.
Data on women’s representation in government bodies show that they are underrepresented in environmental decision-making, which limits their opportunities to shape environment policy. A new snapshot on Women and the Environment in the Asia-Pacific published by UN Women has similar findings. On International Women’s Day, we highlight some of these gaps.

Decision-making in energy sector

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global greenhouse gas emissions are largely driven by industry, transportation, energy production, agriculture and other land use. Insufficient data exists to examine how decisions affecting environmental conservation and degradation are made within these industries, as well as the roles women and men play on these. Data from Pacific power utility firms helps shed light on some of the contributions women and men make to the energy sector.
UN Women found that across countries, women are underrepresented in high-level positions in these industries, limiting their decision-making power for the management of natural resources. Particularly in the Pacific, where women are key holders of traditional environmental knowledge, their participation could promote transformation and conservation. Of the 19 CEO positions for which data were available, only one was filled by a woman (in Papua New Guinea), and the same is true for second-in-charge positions (in Samoa). Furthermore, across these firms, women held only 24 per cent of all managerial positions and 5 per cent of all technical staff positions. These data suggest that additional career pathways are needed for women, including to support their transition into management of Pacific utility firms, and promote their agency and contribution to natural resource management.

Natural resources: Water

Clean water, energy and food are essential for people’s health and wellbeing. Their availability in homes also contributes to reducing unpaid work burdens, particularly for women, who are disproportionately in charge of fuel and water collection, cleaning, and cooking.
Inadequate water infrastructure puts many at risk of water-borne disease. Where tap water is not available, women are often in charge of fetching it from various sources. Analysis of geospatial data shows that women living in areas with more rainfall are more likely to encounter difficulties accessing basic drinking water sources (e.g., improved sources within a 30-minute round trip of their homes) partly because reliance on rainwater among those unable to access tap water may be increasingly at stake. In Cambodia, for instance, while people living in areas with low rainfall are used to rely on sources such as tube wells, boreholes, and bottled water, many who live in rainier areas rely on rainwater during wet periods and turn to unprotected water sources, such as streams and lakes during dry seasons. As climate change
continues altering rainfall patterns, reliance on rain may be hindered and has the potential to worsen the burdens for water collection and treatment that fall on women.
Across the region, women are disproportionately in charge of water collection, and spend, on average, somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes per trip. This may impinge on the time they can allocate to paid work or leisure, and water collection can pose health risks – not only from transporting heavy weights for long distances, but also by increasing exposure to violence during their travel. However, in some countries, men may be stepping up to collect water in households where the water source is far, as indicated by higher median times.

Fuel-related air pollution

The use of unclean cooking fuels has direct effects on indoor air quality, and women – who usually spend more time cooking and inside households than men do – are disproportionately exposed. Cross-country data on deaths attributed solely to household air pollution show that these are, overall, inversely correlated with the use of clean cooking fuels: in countries where households are more likely to use clean fuels, death rates attributable to air pollution tend to be lower. Data, however, shows a small gender gap, with men at a disadvantage.
The higher death rates among men are largely due to related risk factors. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that women exposed to high levels of indoor smoke are more than twice as likely to suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than women using cleaner fuels, but among men exposed the risk nearly doubles due to behavioral factors such as higher rates of smoking. Similarly, mortality from lung cancer, ischemic heart disease and stroke, which worsen with indoor air pollution, is affected by high blood pressure, unhealthy diets and smoking.
For women, gendered health risks include increased incidence of musculoskeletal damage, risk of injury and violence associated with fuel collection, increased risk of lung cancer due to exposure during food preparation, pre-term births and low birth weight, among others.

Aridity and droughts

The rapidly intensifying effects of climate change are having profound impact on the lives of women, men, girls and boys. Empirical analysis reveals that child marriage is more prevalent in more arid areas and in locations where drought episodes are more frequent. Contributing factors, among others, may include families using this practice as a coping strategy in dry situations when agricultural yield is lower, food prices increase and economic strains grow.
It is important to note, however, that increases in aridity and drought episodes only appear to correlate with increases in child marriage in areas where the practice is culturally prevalent, and many other socio-cultural drivers affect the prevalence of child marriage in the countries with available data. The analysis also indicates that adolescent birth rates are higher in arid areas across most countries, an outcome likely connected to higher child marriage rates.