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Sisters on the Planet

Aug 13, 2008

A series of short films puts the spotlight on women under threat from climate change. These films by Oxfam tell viewers to pay attention to the impacts of drought, floods and food shortages on such women and involve them in decision-making processes for better adaptation to a changing climate.

Sahena Begum, a young mother who lives in east Bangladesh on land that's often inundated with water, says the floods are getting worse these days and temperatures less predictable. Local people in her village, Kunderpara, no longer know when it's time to plant their crops. 

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Martina Longom is a young mother too. In Caicaoan village, in the arid Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda, she says the elele bird no longer sings as it used to, heralding the arrival of the rains. Out of the past three years, two have been too dry to grow sorghum, and last year floods washed harvests away. 

Martina and Sahena feature in Sisters on the Planet, a series of short films released by aid agency Oxfam to highlight the impact of climate change on women, which you can watch on YouTube.

"Women collect water, grow food and search for fuel, and it is these natural resources that are being affected by climate change." 

When Sisters on the Planet premiered at a central London cinema, Oxfam GB chief executive Barbara Stocking explained why her organisation had decided to put "sisters" in the spotlight.

"When I meet women in poor countries, they are formidable and resilient, and have joy in what they do. But disasters affect women in particular ways - for example, they have to keep the family together in the middle of floods," Stocking said.

"Women collect water, grow food and search for fuel, and it is these natural resources that are being affected by climate change." 

Threat to women

Oxfam says women in developing countries are under particular threat from the consequences of climate change because of their role as main family carers and their greater reliance on natural resources like rivers and forests to do that job.

After disasters, women often find that their household tasks - like finding water - take much longer. If food is short, they tend to be the first to go without.

This exposure is often made worse by restricted access to money, physical assets like land and machinery, education and public information, as well as women's lower social status and limited involvement in decision-making.

And in disasters like hurricanes and floods, Oxfam says there's growing evidence a higher proportion of women are injured or killed than men. This is because women are less likely to hear official warnings or be able to swim, and can find it difficult to get away quickly if they have to look after children or elderly relatives.

In some cultures, they need to be accompanied by men when they leave the house or are reluctant to use emergency shelters that don't have separate toilets and sleeping areas. 

After disasters, women often find that their household tasks - like finding water - take much longer. If food is short, they tend to be the first to go without, and in flooded coastal regions some end up drinking salty water that can harm pregnancies.

Helping families survive  

The films about Sahena and Martina show what a difference it can make to families and communities when women are put at the heart of adapting to climate impacts in order to avoid development disasters - a strategy Oxfam argues for. 

"I'm proud because I am a mother who can teach her children how to survive a disaster."

Sahena explains that ever since she was a child she had wanted to stop women accepting disasters as a way of life. Despite initial opposition from her husband and brother, she managed to get elected as leader of the local disaster committee.

She has a radio and is able to warn people when floods are coming, making sure they head to shelters. She helps others make clay ovens, which they pack with dry twigs and store in a high place.

And she works with her friends and neighbours to raise the level of their homes, toilets and places where livestock are kept, to protect them from flooding.

Sahena says people - including men - now respect and listen to her. "I'm proud because I am a mother who can teach her children how to survive a disaster," she says in the film.

But for Martina in Uganda, the answers are much less clear. Some in her village have been accused of putting a curse on the rain, and she's not sure who is damaging the rain patterns and the climate. But what women in her community do know is that they are having to walk longer distances to collect fruit, firewood and water.

"I regret having to raise my children at a time like this," Martina laments. "What can I do for them now? What can I give them?"

The difference between the two mothers in their knowledge and capacity to act chimes with a recent draft paper prepared for Britain's Department for International Development, which looked at existing academic work on women and climate change and highlighted the gaps.

Not enough

It found that research on gender and climate change has focused mainly on South Asia, and recommended paying more attention to the gender impacts of drought and food shortages in sub-Saharan Africa.

The report argues that women are not passive victims of climate change but have strong ideas about how to improve their resilience.

More widely, it concluded that failure to include women and girls in decision-making processes on climate change policy makes it less effective, and the constraints to women's participation should be identifed and addressed.

As a positive example of the sort of work we need more of, it cited a report by ActionAid and the Brighton-based Institute of Development Studies, published late year and based on research with women in the Ganga river basin in Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

The report, called "We know what we need: South Asian women speak out on climate change adaptation", documents how women are coping with rising weather-related disasters and what their priorities are for securing their livelihoods in the face of climate change.

These include a safe place to live and store their harvest and livestock during the monsoon season; better access to services such as agricultural extension; training and information about adaptation strategies and livelihood alternatives; and access to resources. 

The report argues that women are not passive victims of climate change but have strong ideas about how to improve their resilience. Momena Begum from Gulzar Mondol village in the Faridpur district of Bangladesh is one of many women quoted. 

"We depend on cows, and it is important to increase our homestead. If our land gets inundated, I have to buy a hundreds of bricks to increase the level further," she says. "But I need money for that. 

"Also, none of us is educated. If we had an educated person or a veterinary amongst us, that person could treat our livestock when the roads are blocked and the veterinary cannot come. If we had a trawler (fishing boat) five of us could jointly rent it, go to a nearby char (sandy island) and collect some grass to feed our cows," she suggests. 

The report urges governments to give women an equal say in how the funds given to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change are managed and spent. But are policy makers really listening? 

The tale of the two mothers in the Oxfam films suggests they're still not trying hard enough - especially in Africa.

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