When asked about 'climate crisis solutions' your first thought might be energy efficiency and renewable energy, right? Yet there is one solution that is often overlooked - empowering women and girls through education.
Gender inequality and the climate crisis intersect on many levels and understanding how is key to realising the potential for transformative change within the climate movement. A report from Project Drawdown discovered that enabling all women access to education and healthcare would have the same impact on greenhouse gas emissions as restoring more than 230 million hectares of tropical forest, an area larger than Greenland. Plus, in their list of 100 activities that would contribute most to saving our planet, Project Drawdown listed the education of girls as number 6!
Access to education is a human right, yet all over the world, girls continue to miss out on education. Girls education is not just about getting them into school, but most importantly is about creating a safe learning space so that they may complete all levels of education; obtain the knowledge and skills needed to operate in the labour market, acquire the socio-emotional and life skills necessary to handle a changing world and become empowered to contribute to their communities.
Poverty is the leading cause for girls not having access to education with studies invariably showing that girls living in low-income families, remote locations or with a disability are continually being left behind. Violence is also a main contributor to girls being unable to access and complete education, oftentimes with the long distances they are forced to walk to school each day putting them at an increased risk of violence, as well as violence they may experience at school. Recent data estimates that approximately 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to or at school each year. According to UNESCO, an estimated 132 million girls around the world are out of school because of these reasons, and in countries affected by conflict, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls living in non-affected countries. According to Worldbank, in many countries only a fraction of the girls who enter primary school will complete secondary school.
So, how does this related to the climate crisis? Well, the climate collapse compounds existing gender inequalities. When for example, an extreme weather event hits, it disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable - that is, women and girls. The UN figures indicate that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women and in extreme weather conditions, like droughts and floods, girls are oftentimes the first to be pulled from school to assist their families at home, just to make ends meet.
How can universal education help gender inequality and climate change?
Universal education is about giving women the tools and the skills to be more resilient in handling a crisis. They are more equipped in protecting themselves and their families as they are better able to prepare, adapt and bounce back from natural disasters. Deaths due to disaster could be reduced by 60 per cent by 2050 if 70 per cent of women aged 20-40 complete primary school. As the effects of the climate crisis continue to escalate, women - being the primary food producers and child bearers, carry the brunt of the changing conditions and extreme events. Education builds resilience and therefore the ability to cope with such circumstances.
Education also opens up the door to politics and leadership, so that women and girls can help address the climate crisis. One just has to look around to see the current waves of climate movements being led by girls and women, who are becoming increasingly aware that their rights are most at stake when an emergency hits. It's been clear during the pandemic that female leadership can lead us out of a crisis and research shows that countries with high representation of women in parliament are more likely to ratify environmental treaties. Globally, only 17 percent of cabinet and 19 percent of parliament members are women; out of eleven Pacific island economies that were studied, five had no women members in parliament at all. In leadership positions, women are more likely to advocate for outcomes that result in greater wellbeing for their family and community life. Whether it's in the home, community or in politics, we need educated women to lead the way in finding solutions for the climate crisis.
Economic empowerment through land ownership is another key part of understanding the need for education of women and girls and how gender inequality is so tied up in the climate crisis. Women make up almost half of the agricultural labour force in the global south and produce between 60 and 70% of food crops. However, whilst they do have a huge part to play in feeding future populations, they are granted significantly less access and control over land, credit and education. Research has shown time and time again that if women are given greater access to owning land, particularly through smallholder agriculture, they can become more self-sufficient, ensure financial stability within their family, produce greater crop and livestock yields and reduce pressure for deforestation. The Nepalese government is a great example of taking measures to promote women's access, ownership and control over land by introducing tax exemptions of between 25% to 50% for land owned by women.
So what can you do?
The key to achieving universal education lies in investment to build more schools and house millions more students and teachers. Everyone has a role to role to play in making this a reality; whether in government, the private sector, philanthropists or multilateral agencies; supporting global access to education through technical and financial assistance is paramount.
At a community level, we can raise awareness and support education initiatives whilst holding our governments accountable. Developing education programs, mentoring students, sponsoring education organisations (Room to Read, CAMFED, Friendship Bridge, Care) or even financially supporting the education of a child (Plan International) can all go a long way in ensuring greater access to education for women and girls.
Ultimately, universal education is key to, transforming not only the lives of girls and women, but the very planet we inhabit, and together we can make that a reality.
Written by Nikki Thorburn
Nikki is a writer and musician, who when she's not on stage, can be found tucked away in her bedroom writing about all things sustainability, social justice and feminism. She's written for publications including RUSSH, Rolling Stone, Bustle, Frankie and Elle Magazine and one day wants to become a pilot and circumnavigate the globe solo - just like her spirit animal, Amelia Earhart.