Women and Climate Change: What You Don’t Know


In December 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, women died, in part, because they could not swim, because they put the needs of their children first, and most tragically of all, they drowned in their homes because they would not flee after debris had torn off their clothes. In the years since the tsunami, these shocking facts have motivated NGOs to develop programs to prepare women for the increasing number of disasters expected to result from climate change.

Why bring up these unfortunate women now? Climate legislation has died in the Senate and is unlikely to be revived by the incoming Congress. And the next round of international climate change negotiations, about to take place in Cancun, seems destined for failure. Why focus on women?

Because this year is the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for the participation of women in decision-making, the protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence, the prevention of violence against women, and the mainstreaming of gender perspectives in peace operations. The resolution has inspired many initiatives to protect and empower women around the world. Now women face new threats as a result of climate change and Resolution 1325 is being revisited.

The point of Resolution 1325 is that insecurity and emergencies expose women to different dangers than those experienced by men. This is both because of biology and because of their traditional social status. And too often, these different dangers are ignored.

The ways in which women are vulnerable, and their human rights are violated, have changed little through the millennia, and climate change will only exacerbate the same old suffering. As global warming accelerates, much of the impact will be felt through the water cycle. Erratic rainfall and unpredictable temperatures will threaten women, who produce 45 to 90 percent of domestically consumed food depending on the region. Men are also farmers, but they may have more capacity to adapt. Worldwide, women own less than 2 percent of all property and often have much less access to credit.

Recent Torah portions remind us of the sufferings of women. Like the Biblical Jacob’s maidservants, women are often still at the mercy of men. Like his daughter, Dina, a rape victim, women are at risk when they engage in everyday activities such as collecting water. As climate change affects water resources, women walk longer distances to supply their households. This places them at greater risk of rape, especially in areas of conflict. The indirect effects of climate change are making childbirth more dangerous than ever, as clean water becomes scarce and infectious diseases spread.

Closer to home, climate change poses unique risks to women even in developed countries with modern infrastructure. In the European heat wave in 2003, 70 percent of the dead were women. Physiological differences may be one reason that more women than men died, but differential rates of poverty also contribute. Women are more likely to live alone, in poor housing conditions, without air-conditioning. Cities in the Northeast of the United States are predicted to experience increased deaths from heat waves in the coming years.

For me, juxtaposing these troubling issues and statistics with the rape of Dina casts a different light on the connections between women and climate change. With Dina in mind, I am reminded that climate change is not just a global issue. It is about communities, families and individual lives, and how new threats complicate old conflicts. For example, Shechem, son of Hamor, who abuses Dina, is likely using her to gain access to Jacob’s wealth. And Jacob’s sons, who take revenge on Shechem and his family, have similar objectives, taking their enemies’ possessions, women, and children as spoil. Dina and the women of Shechem’s family, like women in Sudan and Darfur today, pay the price for conflicts over land and water that are likely to worsen as the climate changes.

The Torah does not tell us what became of Dina. In fact, it tells us nothing about Dina’s thoughts or feelings. On his deathbed, Jacob blesses his sons, the future tribes of Israel. He never mentions Dina. In recent years feminist interpreters of the Torah have provided Dina with a voice in imaginative retellings of her story. When the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325, its members made a commitment to work towards a world in which women’s voices would always be heard. Now it is time to make sure that women’s rights are protected and women are empowered to face the threats posed by climate change.

In a searing commentary, Phyllis Chesler, a feminist psychologist, dissects the reactions to the rape of Dina. Her brothers take revenge by killing Shechem and all the men of his community. Their father, Jacob, reprimands them for their overreaction. Yes, it is an overreaction, writes Chesler, but we can also learn something from it. The brothers treat the rape as a capital crime and rescue their sister from her tormentor. Their outrage and sense of urgency are unusual and admirable.

There is a lesson here for us. If we don’t act, climate change is going to make all of our problems worse. Each of us can do something about climate change, whether it is reducing our use of fossil fuels, supporting projects that are helping women develop water resources, or simply educating our friends and neighbors about the realities of climate change. Somehow, we have failed to realize how urgent the problem is. Maybe now we will think about our mothers, sisters and our daughters and do something about it.

Mirele B. Goldsmith, PhD, represented the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Hazon, the Religious Action Center and 19 other Jewish organizations at the UN Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen. As a sustainability consultant she advises organizations on how to become stronger by going green. www.GreenStridesConsulting.com