The Secret Weapon to Fighting Climate Change? Girls

November 27, 2023

This is a guest blog post written by Elsa, a high school student based in Washington, D.C.

As ice caps melt and natural disasters intensify, women experience the biggest impacts.

When hosts of natural disasters borne by heat and human irresponsibility sweep the globe, the ensuing conflict makes women and girls even more vulnerable to gender-based violence. Additionally, it creates a peril that women are also more vulnerable to: the destruction of natural resources. Women of color, LGBTQIA+ women, migrant women and many other marginalized groups are especially at risk from the instability resulting from climate disaster. As injustices intersect, climate change can worsen gender disparities — but uplifting girls and women under two key areas can create positive change.

1. Farming and natural resources

Women are more at risk when disaster strikes natural resources. Since the man is viewed as the “head of household,” his nutritional needs too often come first when disaster strikes. Furthermore, barriers to education and information conspire to prevent women from receiving information on crop patterns and natural disasters, and from innovating to respond to them. And in addition to this increased vulnerability to climate change, women already have less access to the rapidly declining backbones of life, like crops and building materials. Girls also bear the worldwide burden in collecting water, meaning in times of drought (which are more and more common due to climate change), girls are more likely than boys to drop out of school. On top of this, women are repeatedly marginalized from farming, being characterized as “the farmer’s assistants” across the world. Yet, studies show that maternal income plays a much greater role than the income of fathers in improving family nutrition and children’s survival rates.

Empowering women farmers would improve land use efficiency and increase crop yields, serving as a bastion against deforestation, starvation and other effects of climate change. Women have always been stewards of natural resources — food, plants, water — so with training, women can use these traditional roles and newfound knowledge to create new, sustainable solutions to climate issues.

2. Education

It’s not just that women and girls are more vulnerable to climate change, they’re also discouraged from working to solve it. Well below 10% of climate tech startup funding goes toward women. This means it’s essential to give girls and women the training and financial support required to participate in fields previously made unavailable to them — not just for gender equality, but also for climate justice. Because what if we could work toward both at once?

A 2013 study cited by Project Drawdown, a climate justice nonprofit, found that educating girls is “the single most important social and economic factor associated with a reduction in vulnerability to natural disasters.” This could be because educated girls receive higher wages, experience lower rates of maternal mortality and are less vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and malaria — the “social vaccine effect.”

How young people are taking action

An intersectional approach to climate justice is key. Women-led initiatives and nonprofits are taking this kind of climate action every day, but they need more support. Women’s solutions for development remain heavily underfunded. And, overall, nonprofit organizations like Plan that focus on girls and women receive less than 2% of all charitable giving.

One example of the power of investing in women is thriving businesswoman, Gladness Gilole. Gladness is a mentor for girls in her northern Tanzanian village of Sale. She participated in an environmental entrepreneurship training through the U.N.’s Energize Project, which helped her launch her career.

“I moved back to Sale and now I own a farm, manage a tailoring business and I sell and install solar equipment,” Gladness says.

Including girls in the climate conversation like this means more than simply listening to their perspectives — it means elevating pre-existing solutions by girls, for girls, and embracing locally-led development.

Young people like Gladness are leading the charge for climate justice across the world. But young women still have to jump significant systemic hurdles to participate in climate leadership roles.

Girls for Climate Action, a youth-led movement, makes it possible for girls to prototype and launch climate change solutions. The organization has helped place young women in leadership roles on historically male-dominated local environmental committees, emphasizing the importance of leadership in the fight for climate action and gender justice. Sometimes, it just takes one person to change a community.

And, at Texas State University, students are transforming the way we interact with our climate. The unruly hyacinth, an aquatic plant, grows rapidly over the banks of the San Marcos River, blocking sunlight and oxygen from reaching the placid water below. If not removed, it has the potential to crowd out biodiversity by preventing nearby plants from performing photosynthesis. But local youth are fighting back. As part of the HEDGE team, TSU students sail the river, cutting excess water hyacinth and sending it to industrial-grade ovens to be dried and mixed with cotton, transforming the hyacinth fibers into biodegradable menstrual products!

Many HEDGE members are young women. Graduate student Wren Vogel says participating in HEDGE has inspired her to continue discovering “how we can take something harmful and use it to make something good.” And utilizing the water hyacinth’s natural capabilities to make pads does create the perfect balance, strengthening the river’s ecosystem while decreasing menstrual inequities. By inviting youth to be part of the solution to local climate nightmares and global period poverty, HEDGE is one of the many initiatives springing up that use the voices of young women to combat climate change and gender inequality.

As part of my own personal advocacy work, I spoke on a NOAA youth climate panel and was happy to see that many of the faces I was addressing belonged to girls. Some of these young women have gone on to make highly innovative projects (such as Kennesha Garg’s mangrove root prototype to reach and manage greenhouse gasses in landfills). Others were already trailblazing in their own communities. Working toward gender justice is not wiping a slate clean or reinventing the wheel — it’s elevating the passion that girls and women across the globe have for the climate, and making it known to the world. 

So, when you think of climate change, forest fires and melting ice might come to mind. But so should the many girls and women who are fighting to improve their lives while helping their environment. As Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate change activist, says: “We can’t have climate justice without gender equality … we need women in spaces where decisions on their wellbeing are discussed, especially decisions about the future of the planet.”