Ecofeminism & the Arab Region – How Climate Change & Conflict Impact Women and Communities

In the Arab world (and most of the globe for that matter) gender inequality, climate change, and conflict are intertwined. On the one hand, the consequences of climate change lead to conflict, social unrest, and political upheaval, leading to the displacement of women. Conflict and unrest hurdles women into spaces of even less resources and more major obstacles towards coping, healing, and survival. On the other hand, conflict in the Arab world exacerbates the effects of climate change, jeopardizing environmental resources such as access to land, agriculture, water, and food security. Amidst heightened environmental stressors and threats, violence towards women is regularly used to exert or reinforce control over natural resources. 

Women are extorted for sex in exchange for land ownership, in areas of little access to water women face harassment and assault while en route to collect supplies, men gaining power from illegal mining and poaching operations assault and exploit women, and the list goes on and on. 

THE POWER OF LAND & PATRIARCHY

Women’s ability to maintain personal and food security and a decent livelihood is hindered by the environmental pressure and impact of conflict. Discriminatory laws on land ownership, property, and inheritance increase the difficulties that women face in accessing resources. Although many women play an active role in use, distribution, and management of property, male control and ownership is still enforced. Women’s lack of decision-making capacity limits their ability to adapt to and reduce the impact of climate change, especially in rural areas.

Furthermore, increasing drought, irregular rainfall patterns, and the degradation of agricultural land have led to migration from rural to urban areas. Men are usually the ones who migrate, while women are left to run households amidst hazardous environmental and security threats.

While women suffer heavily from the consequences of climate change, which are often exacerbated by conflict, they are rarely able to benefit from the needed adaptation measures, such as increased access to technology, credit, and assets. Climate change and conflict affect women’s access to resources and livelihood, including land access, agricultural activities, food security, and water access. Lack of access to land in settings of conflict and natural disaster make women more likely to fall into poverty. 

In the Arab region, women are estimated to own less than 5 percent of assets, while they head 40 percent of households in conflict settings.

Land is the basis for sustainable food production and for guaranteeing adequate food intake for all household members—data show that children are better nourished when women can decide what to feed them. Land is necessary to secure access to agricultural crops, metals, and minerals. Land ownership can ensure that women obtain credits and loans, and ways to transform raw material into marketable products.

The Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) states that, in the region, Bahrain and Kuwait rank highest in the indicator pertaining to having laws that ensure the same rights to own, use, and control land for men and women. Sudan ranks the lowest in the SIGI indicator, for it does not have any laws guaranteeing land rights to women. The other Arab countries score a 0.5 in the SIGI index—they all have laws guaranteeing the same rights to own, use, and control for men and women, but the customary, traditional, and religious norms that discriminate against women often overrule these laws.

Furthermore, conflicts and natural disaster can impede women’s employment in the agricultural sector. 

FOOD SECURITY & AGRICULTURE

In the Middle East, women make up about 50 percent of the agricultural labor force. The income gap between men and women is significant in the Arab region and reaches 21 per cent in countries like Lebanon. Closing the gender gap in agriculture would increase food production and reduce the number of people living in hunger worldwide by 100-150 million.

Reduced income and employment opportunities in agriculture sometimes increase rural-to-urban migration in places like Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia. Conflict and natural disaster have decreased women’s participation in agriculture in places like Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. In Palestine, female employment in agriculture decreased from 31.9 per cent in 1999 to 21.4 per cent in 2010. In Syria, the percentage of women in agriculture decreased from 50.2 per cent in 1999 to 20.2 per cent in 2011. Yemen experienced the largest decrease in female employment in agriculture, falling from 87.8 per cent in 1999 to only 28 per cent in 2010.

Women are also responsible for small livestock production, and they make up around two thirds of the world’s livestock keepers. Women take care of poultry and dairy animals, selling eggs and producing dairy products. In settings of conflict and natural disaster, women bear the consequences of losses and damages, as those income-generating activities are compromised. High rates of killings, theft, or diseases take place among livestock in times of resource scarcity due to conflict and natural disaster.

In the event of losses of crops and livestock, women and families’ wellbeing is compromised, and poverty and malnourishment increases. In times of scarcity, women also tend to resort to forest products such as fruits, nuts, or mushrooms in search of food security.

Climate change contributes to widening gender gaps with respect to livestock, fertilizers, equipment, human resources, education, and other institutional resources. Farms run by households headed by females are particularly affected by climate change because of their small size and the limited number of family members who are available to work on the farm. Such households tend to be very poor, as the large amount of unpaid work undertaken by women reduces the time that could be allocated for paid activities.

Conflicts and natural disasters also affect the four elements of food security: availability, stability, utilization, and access to food products. Food availability refers to the domestic production or purchase of sufficient food products to meet nutrition requirements. Food stability refers to the permanent access to adequate food and other livelihood assets. In times of conflict and natural disaster, data show that women reduce their food intake to feed other family members, which can have serious consequences for their health.

Food stability refers to how food products are used and treated in the process of food preparation. Because women are usually responsible for food utilization, they play a vital role in ensuring adequate food preparation to avoid illnesses. Diseases can result from pollution, which tends to be a problem in conflict settings, or from climate disasters such as floods, which can cause malaria or cholera. Food access refers to the ability to produce and sell food products and to use them for self-nutrition purposes. Gender imbalances and hierarchies can hinder women’s access to food.

In conflict-stricken countries in the Arab region, food security rates are low. As of 2015, Syria, Yemen, and Sudan registered the lowest scores on the Global Food Security Index (GFSI), at 40.6 per cent, 37.3 per cent, and 36.5 per cent, respectively. More stable countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates scored 72.8 per cent and 75.6 per cent respectively in 2015.

Women’s health is more likely to suffer due to conflict or climate change. Illnesses such as malnutrition, anemia, and malaria particularly affect women, especially if pregnant or breastfeeding. In Yemen, Sudan, and Iraq, 36 per cent, 34 per cent, and 31 percent of women suffer from anemia, respectively.

WATER

Another serious issue impacting women’s health and livelihood in the Arab region is clean water access. In 2014, 18 Arab countries had a rate of average water availability lower than 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year, which represents the water poverty line. 13 out of 18 of those countries had a rate of water availability per capita per year lower than 500 cubic meters, which represents the severe water scarcity line established by the World Health Organization.

In settings of conflict and climate disasters, access to and availability of water is compromised, as damage is often inflicted upon water resources and infrastructure. Conflicts, including threats posed by fighting and landmines, hinder the operation and maintenance of water facilities.

Throughout 2012-2013, 118 water and sanitation facilities were destroyed in Palestine. In Palestine, around 200,000 rural dwellers in the West Bank are not connected to a water network due to conflict as well as limited rainfall and drought—water scarcity causes heightened water prices, hinders agricultural activities, and endangers livelihoods. Increases in population density due to conflict and climate pressures strain the already compromised water resources, especially in Gaza, Sudan, and Yemen.

Women, who are often responsible for water collection, are disproportionately affected by the impact of conflict and climate events on access to water, especially in rural areas. Amidst water scarcity, women and girls must travel long distances to collect water and are subject to sexual violence and other threats to their safety. The lack of safe and private sanitation facilities exposes women to violence. This is especially true for refugee women in Iraq and Palestine whose only access to sanitation is restricted to camps where water shortages are common.

Women are often placed in dangerous situations when access to water is unavailable and their land rights are compromised—women’s ability to care for their families is threatened by reduced agriculture and livestock production due to lack of access to water. Rural, poor women who depend on shared water resources can often struggle to secure water for their families, increasing exposure to diseases. For instance, cholera and diarrhea outbreaks in Iraq mainly affect women and girls.

Women are at the intersection between climate change and conflict, the impacts of which are mutually reinforced. They are the prime managers of natural resources during war and natural disaster, and they register better performance in the management and use of natural resources compared to men. However, women have limited participation in policymaking even though they are at the forefront in the fight against poverty and ensuring standards for food security. Women must be active participants in environmental policymaking to guarantee better management of resources in conflict settings and to promote peace and stability in the Arab region.

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