It is often asserted that climate change will affect women the most in the developing world. That's because most women will have to walk farther for drinking water, work harder to grow food, pull daughters out of school to help with family chores, and fuss more about family hygiene as the world – and particularly the developing world – becomes a hotter, drier place to live.
But women could also be the key agents of change that help countries to do a better job of preparing for climate change, and mitigating the damage.
"We cannot successfully confront climate change if we neglect the needs, rights, and potential of half the people on our planet," said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the UNFPA, last week at the launch of the UN's State of World Population 2009 report, which is getting a second push at the Arab League summit in Cairo.
"Women should be part of any agreement on climate change – not as an afterthought or because it's politically correct, but because it's the right thing to do," Ms. Obaid said. "Our future as humanity depends on unleashing the full potential of all human beings, and the full capacity of women, to bring about change."
What women do now
Women in the developing world don't need to be told that 10 of the warmest years since 1880 have occurred in the past 15 years. That the world's climate is changing rapidly is not a matter of debate for women in the developing world, especially in the arid regions of North Africa and the Middle East.
From Senegal to Sudan and down to the Persian Gulf, traditional roles still assign men the task of earning wages, and women the task of scratching out an existence cooking food, gathering firewood, fetching water, raising food crops, as well as giving birth to, raising, cleaning, and feeding children:
•In 56 developing countries, the poorest fifth of women still give birth to an average of six children, compared with 3.2 births for the wealthiest fifth.
•More than 200 million women say they want to delay or prevent pregnancies, but do not use contraception.
•There is a strong link between smaller families and greater prosperity. Researchers attribute a large portion of East Asia's phenomenal postwar growth to the fact that the region had relatively slow population growth, with more productive workers and fewer dependants
•Studies suggest that investing in women's education and expanding their numbers in the workforce can boost per capita income in some countries by 14 percent by 2020.
Step for women equals leap for mankind
Improving education and healthcare choices for women, and even access to clean fuels, would have profound effects not just on the prosperity and health of individual families, but more broadly on the developing countries they live in. Keeping a lid on population growth, in particular, would also allow developing nations – which make up 80 percent of the world's overall population – but which consume only 20 percent of the world's energy resources and contribute only 30 percent of the world's greenhouse gases.
"Women can be more affected by climate change, but they can also be agents of change in their communities and in their families," says Hafedh Chekir, regional office director of UNFPA, speaking by phone between sessions at the Arab League summit. "Women can push to be more organized in their community around common issues, like in Darfur about water issues or about wood for cooking, about desertification, about forced migration."
In Djibouti, for instance, women in rural areas organized a collective bus service for pregnant women to travel into urban areas for checkups and to give birth at maternity hospitals. The initiative has spread to 40 communities, where women collect money from residents, thereby ensuring that any prospective mother will be able to have a safe birth.
"Women's participation can ensure that problems are solved more creatively," says Mr. Chekir.
Not an easy sell
Selling a more women-friendly policy on climate change is hard enough in developed countries of the West, so it will certainly not be easy at the Arab League summit. Even so, UN officials are hoping that moderate regimes will act in their own enlightened self-interest. Desertification is expanding rapidly in north Africa and the rest of the Arab world, and with some 5 percent of the world's population, but 1 percent of the world's fresh water resources, the Arab world is rapidly approaching a water crisis.
"We have to do this step by step, and it's a long-term work," says Chekir. "But we have to be optimistic, or else nothing will change in the Arab region. We believe we can do small changes, and the Arab League wants our help to do development issues."