COP26: “In Africa, climate change worsens inequalities between men and women”

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Mariam Diallo Drame, president of the Association Femmes, Leadership et Développement durable (Afled).

Drought, floods, torrential rains… Africa is paying a heavy price on climate change, despite its low contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Women are particularly affected. They are, with children, fourteen times more likely to die in a natural disaster than men, according to the United Nations.

As the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) opens in Glasgow, Mariam Diallo Drame, Malian environmental activist, former advisor to the Prime Minister and president of the Association Femmes, Leadership et Développement durable (Afled), points to the urgency of involving African women in policies to combat climate change.

Why are women in Africa more severely affected by the consequences of climate change?

In the Sahel, women simply pay the price for their rank within their community. On a daily basis, they are the ones who go to fetch wood and draw water. Yet repeated droughts and fluctuating rainfall make their task even more grueling, because water points are drying up and wood is scarce. They must therefore walk even more.

Without forgetting that they are poorer than men and more dependent on agriculture. When climatic hazards destroy crops, women lose their low purchasing power. In fact, in Africa, climate change is worsening already strong inequalities. Hence the urgent need to establish climate justice that takes gender into account.

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Is this observation shared in your country?

In Mali, it is very difficult for us activists to make men, leaders and public opinion understand the existence of gender inequalities. We are told that this is a reading of the relations between men and women imported from the West, which does not stick to our realities. However, discrimination based on gender does exist. It is therefore complicated to explain that climate change accentuates these inequalities.

What about at the international level, in summit negotiations such as the COPs?

International institutions recognize this vulnerability. Reports also show that African women are on the front lines of climate change. But actions are slow to materialize to help them adapt to this new situation. And then there is a lack of real solidarity between African women. Like the continent, they arrive at these meetings in dispersed order, without a common agenda. Each delegation tries to position itself to collect funds. However, activists from northern countries are ready to support their demands. How to advance the struggles of African women in environmental matters if they do not speak with one voice?

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On the international scene and in Africa, women, often young, are leading the fight against climate change. And yet, in decision-making bodies or in international summits, men remain over-represented, according to a UN report. Does this gap have an impact on policies in favor of women?

Yes, because we see that when resources are allocated to developing countries to help them cope with climate change, as in the case of the Green Climate Fund, the money is often redirected to large technological projects increased to 70 % by men, according to one UN Women study published in 2020. Men remain decision-makers. We must make allies of them, because alone we will not succeed.

A woman and her baby walk along an eroded beach in Port-Bouët, Côte d'Ivoire, in December 2009.

How should African women be supported in the face of climate change?

First, you have to draw on their experience in the field. In Mali, women farmers have traditional techniques of adaptation, for example the transformation of cow dung into fuel. To obtain biogas, they mix the dung with water in a large tank and then bury it underground. It would be relevant to deploy this technique on a large scale, by financing micro-projects that would allow women to use sustainable and cheap fuel.

In addition, so that they can do without charcoal, which is harmful to health and the environment, we must rely on alternative energies such as solar. As for the crucial issue of water, faced with droughts, the creation of refueling points must be a priority. In general, large projects must be accompanied by smaller, income-generating projects led by women, whose impact on communities is more direct. In Mali, initiatives around the production and sale of shea have empowered women producers.

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In a country like Mali, plagued by political and military insecurity, does the climate issue appear to be an emergency?

Not really, when these two aspects, climate and security crisis, are linked. Insecurity results in part from climate change. Those who join the armed groups often come from nomadic populations and ranks of pastoralists, faced with agricultural difficulties due to the drought. In order to survive, these young people join criminal gangs who promise to provide for their needs.

“I fear that because of the pandemic, the rich States are reluctant to finance initiatives to support women in the South”

Without forgetting that in this context of insecurity, women’s mobility is reduced. When chores for wood or water, they risk being attacked, kidnapped and exploited. Faced with this, the response of the authorities, which is solely military, cannot suffice. It is urgent to apply a real policy of adaptation to climate change, taking into account the women who find themselves, in conflict zones, in a deplorable humanitarian situation today.

What do you expect from the COP26 which opens in Glasgow?

Listening to our demands is no longer enough, we are waiting for the commitments made at COP21 in Paris to be respected. But I fear that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, rich states are even more reluctant to fund initiatives to support women in the South. They have always been sacrificed in negotiations and this is likely to continue.

We cannot twist the arms of the decision-makers. It is also up to our African leaders to carry this fight. They have the arguments to do it, because the continent pays a heavy price even though it pollutes the least. This imbalance has social and security repercussions, since it exacerbates inequalities and promotes instability.

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COP26: “In Africa, climate change worsens inequalities between men and women”