Climate change doesn’t just damage the world’s natural resources and wildlife — it also has lasting impacts on the health of human beings, disproportionately affecting women and girls. 

Ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow earlier this month, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA, released an analysis of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — which are targets set by countries to drive implementation of the Paris agreement for the next five years — in 50 African countries. 

Global Citizen spoke to Angela Baschieri, the regional adviser on population dynamics in UNFPA’s Eastern and Southern Africa office, about the need for countries to include increasing women’s health services in climate adaptation plans and strategies.

Baschieri has 15 years of experience as an international development specialist and has conducted research published in international economic development journals. 

Image: Giovanni Canova

Here, she helps us learn more about the threat climate change presents for women and girls, potential solutions, and how we can all take action to help. 

Global Citizen: Can you help us understand the connection between climate-related disasters and women's and girls' sexual and reproductive health? 

Angela Baschieri: The impact of climate change is not gender-neutral; it affects women disproportionately. We know that women and girls are largely dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. We know that they are also the hardest hit by extreme weather patterns, which in turn limits access to food, water, shelter, and access to services, including health services, education services, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. 

In many ways, climate change affects the rights of women –– gender-based violence, child marriage, [they all] increase with climate insecurity. FGM increased in East Africa during an extended period of drought, which affected [women’s] livelihoods and eroded the social support section of the population. There is evidence showing that in drought-affected regions, women and girls have to walk longer distances, collect water and firewood, which also makes them more vulnerable to sexual and physical violence. 

In Madagascar, we know that cases of sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, and forced marriage all increased during drought. In the aftermath of a disaster, families are suffering from financial hardship so they are unable to feed their children, they're more likely to take their daughters out of school and it increases the likelihood of child marriage. 

There are estimates suggesting that more than 500 women and girls die every day as a consequence of pregnancy or childbirth in regions affected by crises including natural disasters related to climate change. 

More and more evidence is showing the direct impact of climate change on maternal health outcomes. One study showed [increases] in temperature in the weeks before delivery corresponded with an increase in the likelihood of stillbirth. 

We also know that global warming is associated with an increase in vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue, and pregnant women are susceptible to this disease, which increases the risk of unsafe abortion, premature delivery, stillbirth. Other types of linkages that we find where we have evidence is the correlation between climate change and pollution. We know that air pollution is linked to poor maternal health outcomes and it brings an increase in stillbirths, low birth weight, and so on. 

How can women and girls help drive climate solutions?

It is essential that we consider women and youth as the solution. They are the ones disproportionately affected and we know that around the world, women and young people are often the ones leading the response to climate disasters. They are the ones that after a disaster are working on building community resilience. 

We found that although often countries mentioned sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender as part of the impact of climate change in the UNFPA Nationally Determined Contributions Analytical report, few offered what needs to be done to address this. We must strengthen the understanding of what's the solution and ensure that women’s rights are at the forefront of this discussion. 

Why do you think sexual and reproductive health often gets left out of the bigger climate change conversation?

There is still quite a lot of work that needs to be done in bringing the importance of women's rights into the negotiation process. Over the last 20 years, that discussion has finally arrived at a point where there is an acknowledgment of the importance of addressing both the mitigation and adaptation response. 

For the first time this year at COP26, we had a health program, so we were able to discuss the impact of climate change on the health sector at a health pavilion organized by the World Health Organization. Within that conversation, UNFPA organized a side event where we discussed the importance of health and reproductive systems’ resilience to climate change. There was an important conversation within the health sector on inclusion and the importance of understanding where are the gaps and why and what do we need to do to strengthen this work. 

UNFPA is also supporting a joint working group of climate activists interested in SRHR [sexual and reproductive health and rights] issues. We have around 400 young people and they themselves organized a session on the importance of SRHR. 

More commitments on finance is certainly needed but also more support is needed to help countries to bring forward solutions that address sexual and reproductive rights and women’s rights. 

How would you like to see world leaders ensure sexual and reproductive health services are prioritized amid climate change?

We certainly want to see more ambition in terms of climate financing. We want to see stakeholders delivering on adaptation action that is gender-sensitive and protects the rights of the most vulnerable. We want to see world leaders addressing inequality and gender inequality so that we know that to build a better and healthier planet it is essential that we resolve both the inequality and gender inequality crises. 

We want to see more commitment and support to sexual and reproductive rights, family planning, and education. We know that most likely humanitarian crises are expected to double in the next 10 years. We need more data and understanding for countries to think about climate solutions.

What can everyday people do to help as climate change becomes even more of a threat?

A climate emergency is an emergency for everyone and every part of society. We’re at a pivotal moment when it is time to act, there is no more delay. Tackling inequality is also tackling climate emergencies and everyone can play a role in that. 

Women and girls, men and boys, community leaders, faith leaders, governments, young people, all must drive the change around persistent, discriminatory social and gender norms that have an impact on women.

We need to hear community-led solutions and be a part of those and raise awareness, increasing the dialogue at all levels of society, not just from the experts.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Women’s rights are human rights — and they must be promoted and protected. This 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10, we’re asking Global Citizens to join us for our #16Days Challenge, to take a simple action each day that will help you learn more about women’s rights, bodily autonomy, and gender violence online. 

You’ll start important conversations with your loved ones, advocate on social media for women’s and girls’ right to their own bodies, support women-owned businesses in your community, sign petitions to support bodily autonomy, and more. Find out more about the #16Days Challenge and start taking action here

Global Citizen Asks

Demand Equity

How Does Fighting Climate Change Help Protect Sexual and Reproductive Health?

By Leah Rodriguez