Women in action
On a sunny afternoon in March, a group of elderly Swiss activists walked out of a courthouse in Strasbourg to a round of applause and chants of “bravo.” Supporters blew bubbles and rang cowbells to celebrate their landmark climate case. “They treated us like heroines,” said Elisabeth Stern, 75, who was part of the delegation representing the 2,400-strong Senior Women for Climate Change Protection, supported by Greenpeace Switzerland.
Theirs is the first climate case ever heard by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), a last resort when legal options run out at home -- Swiss judges refused to hear the case. A win in Strasbourg could set legal precedent for EU’s 27 member states and beyond. The “Climate Grannies,” as CNN dubbed them, argued that their government is violating their fundamental rights to health by “woefully inadequate efforts” to address global warming. They cited research showing that elderly women are more at risk of dying during heatwaves than men.
Switzerland is warming at more than twice the global rate, its glaciers are melting fast, and the country has been hit by extreme heat this summer. The climate activists – average age 75 – drew media coverage from as far away as the Times of India and South China Morning Post. A headline from the New York Times read, “Grandmothers of the World, Unite”. Deutsche Welle posted a video, “Climate Seniors are taking on Switzerland.”
“This is an historic moment. We see ourselves as tremendous agents of social change,” said Stern, a retired anthropologist who grew up in the shadow of the Alps. In July, she retreated to the mountains to escape the heat in Zurich. Women are in the eye of the storm with climate disasters. What price are they paying? Are journalists paying attention?
Climate change is not gender-neutral and should not be reported that way.
How women are affected
The U.N. states it bluntly: “Gender inequality coupled with the climate crisis is one of the greatest challenges of our time. It poses threats to ways of life, livelihoods, health, safety and security for women and girls around the world.”
From the New York Times: “Although climate change is a collective problem, its burdens — displacement, homelessness, poverty, sexual violence, disease — weigh more heavily on women and girls . . . 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women.”
The Centre for Climate Justice based at Glasgow Caledonian University explains to the BBC that climate change affects women more for two reasons: “Extreme weather disasters intensify existing inequalities in society. Women don't have good enough representation at climate talks to have their say on effective solutions.”
What should data journalists take away from this?
- Climate change is not gender-neutral and should not be reported that way
- The impact of climate change amplifies gender inequalities, an important part of the story.
- Sex-disaggregated data -- data collected and tabulated separately for women and men -- is vital for fair reporting on climate issues.
By segmenting data by gender, region, or marginalised groups, journalists can uncover inequalities and issues hidden in aggregated data. It becomes a matter of analysing and curating the numbers to cull out storylines. “It is critical in understanding what is truly happening. We have seen this time and again, where men are the ones who are reflected in the data, but when you disaggregate it, you get a very different picture,” said Fara Warner, Solutions Journalism Network's director of climate.
She advises reporters to “broaden and deepen” their sources, focusing on scientists and researchers who are working directly with communities most affected by climate change. “This is such a ripe topic to investigate. Add in solutions, and it becomes a place where any journalist can make a mark. This is especially true because the connection between gender and climate is under-covered in the media,” said Warner. That leads to the question: Who is working to change that?
Data shows that more women die prematurely than men due to environmental degradation.
Filling the gender data gap
U.N. statistician Iliana Vaca Trigo sees efforts being made to fill gender data voids. According to Trico, the lack of segmented data “has been acknowledged in the gender-environment nexus” and action is being taken. She cited efforts by the U.N. to mainstream gender into climate change data. Trigo provided links to resources that could be helpful to journalists. They are listed in the resource section at the end of this article.
Along the same line, an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report cited a “growing recognition of the need for a gender lens to understand the impact of environmental factors on well-being.”
OECD provides evidence and analysis on the gender-climate nexus, i.e., gendered impacts of climate change. For instance, data shows that more women die prematurely than men due to environmental degradation, face greater economic insecurity and are more often displaced by climate-forced migration.
Open-access data tools from Data2X are another valuable resource. A link to the World Bank Gender Data Portal, with more than 900 indicators in an accessible and usable format, is available on the website.
Also worth checking, “Gender Data Solutions Inventory” and “Solutions to Close Gender Data Gaps,” with over 140 practical tips, including environment. The inventory includes The Gender Climate Tracker App, information on policies, research, and actions related to gender and climate change.
These sources share a commonality. They provide sex-disaggregated data as a tool for fair and balanced reporting on climate and women.
“It allows us to see the full picture of climate change, revealing inequities and deprivations,” said Lindsay Bigda, communication manager for Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). “Although it has been neglected in the past, there are indications of a growing movement that indicates uptake in disaggregated data as we consider how crucial it is to produce comprehensive reporting and solutions,” she added.
A study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) illustrates Bigda’s point. Researchers used collated data and case studies from over 1,000 sources to document links between environmental pressures and violence against women and girls. Some of the findings were stunning.
From the report, “Conflict over access to scarce resources can give rise to practices such as `sex-for-fish’ where fishermen refuse to sell to women if they do not engage in sex,” a practice seen in parts of Eastern and Southern Africa.
The report linked gender-based violence to environmental crimes, such as sex exploitation around illegal mining. “The damage humanity is inflicting on nature can also fuel violence against women around the world – a link that has so far been largely ignored,” said IUCN acting director Grethel Aguilar when the study was released.
At times, progress has been slow. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) monitors women in positions of power in environment and climate within the EU. In November 2021, they reported that women were “woefully under-represented” in EU member states.
Datasets started from 2012 and showed where progress had – and had not – been made. The data can be found in the Women and men in decision-making entry point of EIGE’s Gender Statistics Database. EIGE has been tasked by the European Commission with cross-data collection and analysis on issues related to gender and environment, said Ligia Nobrega, EIGE expert for gender statistics.
She would like to see more reporting on the relevance of mainstreaming a gender perspective throughout all key sections related to the environment and climate change, such as energy, transport, industry, economy, and agriculture.
“You can also portray stories of women and men challenging gender stereotypes in climate-related sectors or portraying how women and men, in all their diversity, impact and are impacted, by the climate differently,” said Nobrega.
Women are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Who is telling their stories?
While covering the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, COP26, in Glasgow, Washington Post climate reporter Kasha Patel heard young women describe how extreme weather closed or destroyed their schools, deepening inequalities in education. Research shows girls are less likely to return to the classroom after a crisis.
“We often talk about the effects of climate change on our atmosphere, but this discussion showed it can also indirectly affect social issues and become a `threat multiplier,’” said Patel. She reported, “More extreme weather is taking girls out of school, forcing them into earlier marriages and increasing their exposure to violence.”
Patel used data to show how girls in low-income countries are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Some of the findings were jaw-dropping.
Based on research from the Malala Fund, in 2021, climate-related events prevented at least 4 million girls in poor countries from finishing their education. By 2025, that number could climb to more than 12.5 million due to flooding, droughts, and increased exposure to disease.
A UNICEF study calculated the number of hours women and girls spend collecting water each day – 200 million, equaling 8.3 million days or over 22,800 years. If water is contaminated or dried up due to droughts, they are forced to walk longer distances. “When water is inaccessible, they cannot practice proper menstrual hygiene and miss class until their period is over,” wrote Patel. “If extreme weather damages crops, girls may skip school to spend more time in the field to make up for losses.”
She cited U.N. data projecting rises in global temperatures and increases in heavy precipitation, placing women at greater risk. “These types of stories show the lasting effect that climate change will have on generations, setting back social progress in many regions of the world,” Patel wrote in the Post.
Case in point, Reuters reported from Jacobabad, Pakistan, the “hottest city on earth,” on how mothers and pregnant women were surviving.
Data from the meta-analysis showed for every one degree of Celsius in temperature rise, the number of stillbirths and premature deliveries increased by 5 percent. Statistics were gathered by several international research institutions and published in the British Medical Journal.
The story cited an analysis of 70 studies that found pregnant women exposed to heat for prolonged periods are at higher risk for complications.
On another front, a story by the Fuller Project, published in the Washington Post, reported a link between violence against women and weather disasters.
A study in Kenya, based on satellite and national health survey data, showed domestic violence rose by 60 percent in areas that experienced severe weather. That analysis, and 40 others published as part of a global review in the journal The Lancet, found similar results.
“Heat waves, floods, climate-induced disasters increase sexual harassment, mental and physical abuse, femicide, reduced economic and educational opportunity and increase the risk of trafficking due to forced migration,” Terry McGovern, head of Columbia University’s department of Population and Family Health, told Fuller Project reporters.
This kind of journalism raises awareness and ensures that the plight of women will not be forgotten. That is particularly important since government statistics often fall short.
What governments are missing
In November 2022, world leaders at COP27 lined up for the obligatory group photo. Of the 110, only seven were women, the lowest concentration at a U.N. climate summit, according to the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), which tracks female participation.
An analysis of climate change stories during COP26 found only 2% contained a gender angle. The proportion of stories on gender-related issues declined from 2.2% in 2017 to 1.4% in 2021. A study by Data2X found that 60 percent of countries don’t have data on how women are affected by climate change, and no globally agreed-upon data framework exists to monitor gender and climate.
Women typically are not part of governmental policymaking on the environment or included in decision-making bodies. According to Oxfam, women make up less than 24% of the world’s parliamentarians and 5% of its mayors.
Yet, the notion of women as climate change agents is gaining momentum. COP27’s Gender Day pushed for integrating female perspectives into climate policies, strategies and financial decisions. Women were heralded as key drivers of climate solutions. Climate stories often portray women as victims or survivors, which often is the case. They also have another role: agents of change.
Women as change agents
A Glasgow-based programme called Gilded Lily runs workshops to empower women to speak out and become engaged with climate change. Zarina Ahmad, one of the leaders, sets a defiant tone: “Look at women for solutions and resilience -- and don't speak on behalf of women, which is what we often get, especially women of colour. Give us space, let us have our voices, and let us be heard.”
Ahmad’s words ring true for Las Chelemeras, a group of women in the Mexican port town of Chelem who has restored more than 60 percent of the state reserve of swamps and mangroves on the north coast of Yucatan.
A story in El Pais International described them as local heroes, breathing new life into Yucatan’s mangrove forests that act as deterrents to climate change. The muddy soil that mangroves live in is carbon-rich. Their strong root systems help protect coastal communities from extreme weather events like hurricanes.
El Pais reported, “before entering the swamps, the voice of these women went unheard.” Today, their project helps to recover ecosystems that had been lost due to environmental degradation and urban development.
A CNN report “Solar Sisters to Waste Warriors”, highlighted a project in Tanzania where women learn to install solar equipment and build sustainable gas systems to reduce dependence on firewood for cooking and lighting homes.
For a UK-led initiative called eXXpedition, 300 women from 100 countries sailed to remote areas to combat plastic pollution. The all-female crews collect samples of water, sand and air and analyse how they have been contaminated by plastic waste, reported CNN.
When it comes to women combating climate, there is no shortage of stories waiting to be told.
Look at women for solutions and resilience, and don't speak on behalf of women.
Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) provides guidelines for conducting investigations “to hold accountable solutions put forth by governments, businesses, nonprofits, and other stakeholders.” They relate to reporting on women and climate, such as:
- What is the solution being put forward, and how has that solution worked or not worked?
- What evidence, such as on-the-ground experience or empirical data, indicates that the solution is effective?
- Has it been effective in communities most affected by the climate crisis?
- What insights and information could help other stakeholders better respond to the problem?
Coveringclimatenow.org (CCN), another excellent source for solutions’ reporting, includes sources for story ideas and a climate solutions guide.
Among CCN’s best practices for climate journalists:
- Know your audience
- Humanise and localise the story
- Know the science, but talk like a real person
- Tell the whole story, including solutions
- Do not give a platform to climate deniers
- Remember, climate is a story for every beat
The bottom line, journalists are at the heart of solution reporting. Whether writing about 150-degree temperatures in the Middle East or droughts in Africa, they are well-positioned to address deep-rooted climate inequalities around the globe. That is part of their watchdog role.
Solutions Journalism Network's Fara Warner believes, “We will be held accountable for how we cover this climate crisis. We can do better.” Her words have a ring of truth as global warming tightens its grip.
Resources for stories on women and climate
U.N. statistician Iliana Vaca Trigo shared the following references:
UN Women, UN ESCAP, UNEP and IUCN (2019). Mainstreaming gender in environment statistics for the SDGs and beyond: Identifying priorities in Asia and the Pacific
UN Women and United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The Gender Snapshot 2022.
UN Women (2023). Gendered impacts of climate change: Evidence from Asia
Women’s Environment and Development Organization – Gender Climate Tracker
Other sources for climate change and gender
Evidence-based Measures of Empowerment for Research on Gender Equality (EMERGE): “Provides an open access repository of survey measures on gender equality and empowerment compiled by researchers at the Global Environmental Health. Site users can filter their search for survey items and scales by thematic area, including environment and sustainability.”
Carbon Brief: UK-based website covering the latest developments in climate science, climate policy and energy policy, including the impact of climate change on women and girls.
Gender and Environment Data Alliance (GEDA): Compiles, curates, and communicates data on gender and the environment. Explores data and data methodologies to expand scope of available information.
Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO): “Publishes data on women’s participation and leadership in the Convention’s Conference of the Parties (COPs) and within national environmental forums and action plans.”
International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN): Environment and Gender Information platform is a key source of global data on gender and the environment.
How climate change escalates social, political and economic tension through a gender lens: Five facts about gender and climate change.