Climate justice, health and sexual and reproductive rights

Credit: Dennis Diatel Photography / iStock

When human rights defenders and activists talk about the effects of the climate crisis, we usually emphasize the biological, chemical and physical aspects of this phenomenon. Thus, the discussion revolves around scientific and technical tools for adaptation and mitigation and the adoption of a market approach. More and more often environmentalists understand and raise our voice for devastating consequences of the climate crisis in terms of the full exercise and guarantee of human rights – including the right to food, water and sanitation, a healthy environment, health, self-determination and free development – of the 8 billion people who inhabit the planet.

However, this rights-based analysis tends to take a gender-neutral stance. If the goal is to ensure social justice, advocates must contextualize the effects of this climate crisis to acknowledge a social reality in which we all engage in gendered relationships. Specifically, these relationships are characterized by inequality and power asymmetry, which places different groups in different states of risk and vulnerability within the ongoing climate crisis.

Historically, women and girls have suffered from systemic discrimination resulting from the stereotypes and differentiated social, economic and political roles assigned to them in cultures and societies around the world. Their social and political vulnerability puts them at greater climate risk. Furthermore, many of the adverse effects that women and girls may suffer stem from the effects of the climate crisis on accessing and securing and fully exercising their sexual and reproductive health rights.

At a practical level, the climate crisis has direct implications for the violation of the sexual and reproductive health rights of women and girls: increasing air pollution and temperatures can lead to premature births and low birth rates; increasing poverty and food insecurity impact maternal and newborn health; and the impact of extreme weather events that threaten access to drinking water, affect women’s access to it for personal – including menstrual – hygiene or to ensure health conditions around childbirth. Climate impacts also damage health facilities and infrastructure, preventing access to health services and causing disruptions in the supply chain of voluntary modern contraception, as seen in the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to these direct effects, the climate crisis also has indirect effects on gender-based rights. The increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events – such as sea level rise, rain and hurricanes – are creating disruptions to the family economy. Effects such as loss of jobs and resources, humanitarian crises and forced displacement can lead to increased levels of sexual and gender-based violence, including sex trafficking and harmful practices such as early marriage and forced unions.

Although girls and women suffer disproportionate violations in terms of their full access to their rights to sexual and reproductive health, the climate crisis also threatens the health rights of people with marginalized sexual orientations and diverse gender identities and expressions who are also in a state of vulnerability arising from structural inequality. For example, emerging diseases have caused disruptions in the drug supply chain in healthcare systems. This drug shortage poses a particular risk to trans people who need access to hormone replacement therapy.

Today it is necessary to recognize the following:

  1. Effective climate solutions must integrate a gender perspective and intersectorality into policies and programs regarding climate change adaptation and mitigation. A key step, for example, is to conduct a gender analysis when proposing evidence-based solutions. Some countries are taking steps to integrate gender and climate change into their environmental policies – for example, Uzbekistan’s green mortgage pilot program helped 67% of rural households headed by women to access energy technology. Chile has created a gender and climate change table with a checklist that includes gender issues in national instruments dedicated to climate change mitigation. The government is also developing a new methodology – with a gender perspective – that assesses public budgets through the lens of climate change.
  2. Climate solutions must recognize the importance of rights to sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) as a crucial axis for resilience and adaptation to climate change. These actions must focus on eliminating structural forms of inequality and ensuring that people can participate in decision-making about the world’s future. Critical steps include improving data systems for reporting and forecasting the differential impacts of climate change on SRH, gender-based violence and harmful practices, and strengthening efforts to collect and use disaggregated data, making it possible to identify groups vulnerable to climate change and developing climate budgets with a gender perspective and components related to sexual and reproductive health rights.

If advocates and activists seek to address the effects of the climate crisis and build a sustainable world, we must recognize that the struggle for social justice will require making our gendered reality visible. The rights community must continue to analyze how climate impacts are differentiated and how they affect our health. Today, we must demand that our legislators ensure that proposed solutions and responses to the climate crisis include a gender perspective and intersectionality, ensuring the climate resilience of health policies and programs worldwide.

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