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Intersections between Gender and the Environment Revealed

“The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else”
Barry Commoner

On this premise, I wrote my master’s thesis on the intersections between human rights, the environment, and gender within the European Union. I think it is important to see how different issues relate to each other and why it matters to recognize how they are inter-related. In this post, I want to share some examples of issues with unexpected intersections.

In Mexico, climate change caused warmer temperatures and, in turn, water scarcity, which has led to serious difficulties in cultivating certain fruits and vegetables. Women in this region in particular use these products not only to earn and control income, but also to exchange as gifts. This is “a practice used to secure women’s status in important social networks that act as safety nets and important social capital”. This is a clear example of how women are affected differently by climate change than men, but also demonstrates the interconnectedness between safety nets and women’s independence.

Similarly in Sub Saharan Africa, climate change increases the variability of crop yields leading men to migrate seasonally. Several case studies show that men were more likely to have unprotected sex while they were away from home and therefore at a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Upon returning home, the men pass this disease on to their wives, contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS. These cases demonstrate how climate change-induced migration can affect public health and the spread of disease and how this is related to agricultural production.

People often see the inter-relations between gender and human rights, but have trouble seeing how either of these relate to the environment. After saying, ‘How it is related is actually an easier question than how it is not’, I usually explain the rather standard example of cultures where women are responsible for the collection of water – with water being scarcer because of climate change, women have to spend more time traveling to find water and checking the availability of water at wells. When I read for the first time the examples mentioned here, I was quite stunned: these interconnections went far deeper than I had imagined. Whenever I share these examples with people, they tend to be equally surprised. Yet also on a couple of occasions, right after the surprise wears off, these people recall a story of their own where they found a degree of interrelatedness that they would have never imagined.

Because it is so paramount, but also because we are in general quite ignorant to the sheer degree of this interconnectedness, more attention to these links is necessary. How can we ever get a full understanding of a problem, and subsequently find a true solution, if part of the problem, where it interrelates and interplays with other issues, is not considered? Recognizing that they relate to other issues is the first step towards solving them. Going back to the examples above, how could we ever truly deal with HIV/AIDS or public health while being ignorant of one of the causes, that is actually rooted in climate change? How do we help increase women’s independence when we don’t know that it is rooted in being able to use fruits and vegetables not only as a source of income, but also in their use as gifts to secure a social safety net? And that this is, once again, actually endangered by climate change?

In realizing these intersections, we might get closer to an understanding, and eventually a solution!

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