The world’s girls take on climate change

By Dr. Susan M. Blaustein, Founder/Executive Director, WomenStrong International

You might think that organizations working with women and girls in impoverished urban settings need not worry about climate change. Yet the effects of climate change place extraordinary burdens on the girls and women with whom WomenStrong International works, whether in India, Kenya, Ghana, Haiti, or the United States.

The catastrophic impacts of climate change on rural communities have been well-documented: from prolonged drought to ravaging floods, the newly unpredictable weather and entire seasons have resulted in dramatically diminished crop yields, degraded soils, failed farms, and uprooted communities that have triggered a cascade of destructive consequences for women and girls.

In the countryside surrounding nearly all of the cities and towns where WomenStrong works, hungry developers are rapidly buying up unproductive farmland and disrupting traditional family life as farmers are now forced to reinvent themselves as day workers, traders, or market women. Fathers may venture far afield for months at a time, while mothers are off trading in town; alternatively, the men may have no work at all, triggering the kinds of frustration, depression, and alcoholism that fuel domestic violence, driving the women and children into the city, where they join the already crowded ranks of the urban poor. Young people, seeing what’s happening with their parents and viewing farming as a new dead end, are also heading for the cities, where they believe their options may be brighter.

In the peri-urban areas around Kumasi, the capital of Ghana’s Ashanti region where WomenStrong works, we’ve seen precisely this scenario play out in recent years. The women are simply run ragged: they provide for their children pre-dawn, rush off to buy the produce they used to grow themselves, then spend long, arduous days in town trying to make enough to feed their families, getting home well after dark, to start all over again. There’s no room in this regimen to take care of their health, or their children’s, really; and certainly no time to go over homework, to hear how their son or daughter is faring in school, to have fun together, to feel like a family.

For the children, left largely to decide for themselves whether school is the best use of their time, the consequences can be equally dire. Many drop out, there’s significantly increased alcoholism and drug use among boys, and many of the girls, lured by the brighter enticements of town, take to selling their bodies for cash. Some end up moving into town to live with older men who may pay their school fees in exchange for sexual favors; sometimes, those girls return home, pregnant, ashamed, out of school, alienated from their friends, and far off-track from their dreams.

Women’s Health to Wealth, our WomenStrong partner in Ashanti, has held a series of meetings with community stakeholders there — the mothers, the teachers, the pastors, imams, even the sheriffs! — who have developed a plan for getting those girls back to their communities and back to school and holding the babies’ fathers accountable. But their mothers and grandmothers, too, are moving to town, and the impacts of their in-migration on those already crowded into informal settlements are severe. Local governments struggling to cope with existing populations of slumdwellers are ill-equipped to accommodate the needs of the thousands of new residents for housing, water and sanitation, transport, health care, or jobs. In any case, even the most determined local government cannot fix the climate, or the rains, or the soils, or their fast-changing way of life.

In effect, this massive disruption in the lives of girls and women is a late-stage manifestation of the convergence of these far greater forces: beginning with climate change and massive demographic pressure, leading to the destruction of the age-old system of smallholder agriculture, rampant deforestation, spiraling real estate pressures, and massive in-migration, culminating in community collapse.

Elsewhere among WomenStrong sites, we’ve witnessed similar downstream impacts on vulnerable women and girls.

In Kisumu, Kenya, many of the women in the slums where we work have been driven there by the same kinds of drought parching their ancestral villages. As in Ghana, there is dramatically reduced rainfall, compounded by decimated crop yield from soils exhausted by overfarming. But Kisumu is on the shores of the great Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, where water levels are now at record lows, and the fish catch has been reduced by 30–40 percent. This scarcity affects the local fishermen, of course, as well as the livelihood, wellbeing, purchase power, diet, and mores of the local population; “sex for fish” is common shorthand for the fishermen’s barter offer to local women and girls.

In southern India, not far from where we work with girls and women in the slums of Madurai, last August saw the worst monsoon flooding in Kerala State in nearly 100 years. Many of the women in our program traveled to Kerala, to help house, feed, and clothe the hundreds of thousands displaced, giving them a sense of broader purpose, usefulness, and self-esteem. A scant three months later, though, in their own Tamil Nadu State, Cyclone Gaja, with its 180km/hour winds, destroyed nearly 60,000 hectares of crops and trees — this time, disrupting our community’s food supply, driving up prices, and demolishing their makeshift housing.

In Haiti, last September’s Hurricane Irma ripped out our farmers’ banana fields, blew their houses off the hillsides, and destroyed our experimental tilapia nurseries. Not a month later, Hurricane Matthew struck, leaving 800,000 needing food, causing billions in infrastructure and crop damage nationwide, and wiping out the only road in our mountainous commune. But the northwestern region where WomenStrong works was in an economic and food security crisis well before Matthew, to the point where the fathers and the youth were already leaving in droves for the capital or for the nearby Dominican Republic — for work, for their education, and for a glimpse of a viable future.

In northern Haiti as in our other WomenStrong settings, the larger forces at play have placed crushing pressures on families and on whole communities. In higher-income countries, too, these forces hurt the poorest communities first, hardest, and with the longest-lasting impacts. In most American cities, those areas most susceptible to the adverse effects of sea-level rise are not only literally the lowest-lying properties, but also, mostly, those harboring the lowest-income populations. Power outages in both public housing high-rises and ramshackle single-family dwellings leave residents without lights, elevators, refrigerators for their food and medicines, the Internet, and TV, where they get vital public information, putting the lives of the elderly and disabled at risk and adding hours to the daily routines of mothers living there with young children.

With Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Matthew as object lessons, most city managers are finally beginning to consult with vulnerable populations and to integrate their needs, and those of other low-income residents, into their strategies for mitigating the impacts of climate change. But government planning in the U.S. remains far behind, from piecemeal municipal and state planning, to the dated flood maps and plans still relied on by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Army Corps of Engineers. And while mayors of coastal, riverside, and mountainous cities and towns have been compelled to respond to constituents’ needs in the immediate wake of ravaging floods and fires, some governors and legislatures have refused even to acknowledge, much less grapple with, these evermore destructive impacts of climate change on their own populations.

Happily, our children are speaking out. Sixteen-year-old Swedish student activist Greta Thunberg, organizer of the global “school strikes for climate,” has argued passionately for her future and that of her generation to audiences all over Europe. Twenty-one American students, led by University of Oregon undergraduate Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana, have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for violating their constitutional rights and failing “to protect essential public trust resources” that is now moving through the courts. The plaintiffs range in age from Kelsey, 23, down to 11-year-old “Levi,” who has been busy replanting the dunes on his beloved Florida barrier island, which was devastated by the very same Hurricane Matthew that so ravaged the northern Haiti community working with WomenStrong.

The non-profit Our Children’s Trust, which helped file the lawsuit, says that these and other young people are fighting “to secure the legal right to a stable climate and healthy atmosphere for the benefit of all present and future generations.” In a saner world, this would be a reasonable, obvious proposition; at the current moment, it’s both inspiring and profoundly shaming that it takes 16- and 11-year-old climate defenders to show us the way.

Our children are looking to their future: rightly, they are deeply concerned. We, too, recognizing that the reverberations of colossal global pressures reach all the way down to the grassroots, must act — to advocate, educate, legislate, and plan for arrays of contingencies, to protect our communities, especially the most vulnerable. As the parents, elders, and teachers of these brave young people, we also have the knowledge and power to help them refine their arguments and gather the evidence that will make them effective citizen scientists, as well as climate activists. In turn, we must learn from this next generation’s own wisdom, courage, and stamina, as together, we muster the collective power to stave off the cascade.