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How the climate crisis fuels gender inequality

| Notícias

The climate crisis may be a collective problem, but its impacts do not fall equally. Women and girls often bear the heaviest burdens.

November 30, 2023

Editor's note

This story is part of As Equals, CNN’s ongoing series on gender inequality. For information about how As Equals is funded and more, check out our FAQ.

Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, finding existing injustices and amplifying them. Women and girls already grapple with gender inequality, but when extreme weather devastates a community, the UN found that inequalities worsen: Intimate partner violence spikes, girls are pulled from school, daughters are married early, and women and girls forced from their homes face a higher risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

“When we look at who's affected worse, who's on the frontlines of the climate crisis, it's primarily women — women in poor and vulnerable countries,” Selwin Hart, UN Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Climate Action and Just Transition, told CNN. “And unfortunately, our policies or strategies are really not geared to address this challenge.”

To explore the complex links between gender and climate change, CNN worked with seven women photojournalists who spent time with women and girls in seven countries across the Global South to document the challenges they face.

This visual project gives a snapshot of the myriad ways the human-induced climate crisis is upending their lives, but also shows how they are fighting back. Every image shows both struggle and survival, the battle to live a decent life in a swiftly changing climate.

Girls’ education in Nigeria

The Center for Girls’ Education runs a series of programs in Nigeria to help girls stay in school. One in every five of the world’s children who are out of school is in Nigeria, according to UNICEF, and it is girls who are impacted the most.

Photographs by Taiwo Aina for CNN

More than 10 million children between 5 and 14 years old are absent from classrooms across Nigeria, according to UNICEF. For girls, the statistics are even bleaker: In states in the northeast and northwest of the country, fewer than half attend school.

This education crisis is the result of a tangle of factors, including poverty, geography and gender discrimination, the UN agency adds. But against the backdrop of these individual factors is the broader context of the climate crisis.

Nigeria is growing hotter and dryer, and extreme weather such as flash floods and landslides are becoming fiercer and more frequent. Climate disasters can make schools inaccessible and classrooms unsafe. Communities struggling to cope with extreme weather sometimes turn to their children to help or to earn extra money to support the family. And girls, whose attendance at school is already discouraged in some communities, are often most affected.

For every additional year the average girl attends school, her country’s resilience to climate disasters can be expected to improve by 3.2 points on an index that measures vulnerability to climate-related disasters, according to estimates from the Brookings Institution.

There are efforts to support girls' education and equip them with the resources to cope with a fast-changing climate. The Center for Girls’ Education in the northern Nigerian city of Zaria runs programs to help girls stay in school and offers training on how to cope with the impacts of extreme weather.

“I feel when we give the girls education on climate change, how to mitigate it, it will go a long way in helping the girls in how to support themselves in times of difficulties, and even help them prepare for it,” said Habiba Mohammed, director of the Center for Girls’ Education.

Asiya Sa’idu, 17

Asiya Ja’afar, 18

Shafa’atu Nuhu, 22

A flooded and eroded area in Zaria, Nigeria. Climate disasters in the region can make schools inaccessible and classrooms unsafe. The Center for Girls’ Education offers training on how to cope with the impacts of extreme weather.

Ja’afar dropped out of school when she was 13 due to health issues. She says it was her only option to avoid the long distances she had to walk to attend classes. Years later, with mentorship from the Center for Girls’ Education, she is now enrolled in a vocational program studying poultry farming.

Nuhu sits in a classroom at her secondary school in Soba, Nigeria. At 22, she bears responsibilities of a wife, a mother and a student. The Center for Girls’ Education has helped her navigate school and her family life. “I chose to go to school because of the passion I have for education and also to support my children to get quality education,” she said. “And even when it comes to interacting with people, an educated person interacts better, and personally I see education as the key to a better life.”

Since she was 8 years old, Ja’afar has been helping support her family by preparing and selling fish.

Ja’afar stands outside her house in Zaria. She says the school she used to attend was far from home, and girls would often be harassed along the route.

Nuhu sits at home with with her two daughters, 5-year-old Salma and 1-year-old Nabila. She says that during the rainy season, her path to school is blocked by floodwaters: “Sometimes when it overflows, we are left with no other option than to return home and forget about school that day — or we cross it with water reaching our waist.”

Sa’idu displays a notebook in front of her house in Dogon Bauchi, Nigeria.

Sa’idu, center, attends summer school. When the Center for Girls’ Education surveyed girls about climate change, some interpreted its impacts as retribution for bad behavior. One answered: “I wasn’t a good wife, so my fields got flooded.”

Ja’afar sits in the poultry house where she takes classes in Zaria. She says her goal is to own a big poultry pen.

Sa’idu and her sisters package tiger nut snacks at their home in Sabon Gari, Nigeria. Sa’idu sells the snacks to make extra money to support her education.

Mentor Rahmatu Abubakar of the Center for Girls’ Education, center, leads a class in Soba. She runs a program called Married Adolescent Safe Space, which teaches life skills to those who got married young and dropped out of school.

Sa’idu leaves her house in Sabon Gari. “My future ambition is to become a medical doctor because we don’t have enough female medical doctors,” she said. “Mostly if you go to our hospitals, you find out that most of the specialist doctors are males.”

Taiwo Aina is a Nigerian photojournalist based in Lagos. Her work often focuses on societal issues that affect people's daily lives, with an emphasis on women, agriculture and entrepreneurship.

Food insecurity in Brazil

Marinalda Rodriguez da Silva, left, holds her 2-month-old grandson, João Gabriel, while eating breakfast with her 17-year-old daughter, Dailandia Silva Oliveira, in Chapada da Sindá, Brazil. Marinalda is one of the leaders in her community. The day starts early, with her cleaning the house and cooking before leaving to gather coconuts that will be transformed into oil and flour.

Photographs by Adriana Zehbrauskas for CNN

The Amazon rainforest is a vital carbon sink, taking in more planet-heating carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it releases. But the climate crisis and widespread deforestation for agriculture and ranching are taking a heavy toll, threatening to push the Amazon to a tipping point beyond which it may struggle to recover.

In northeast Brazil, a group of women in the Amazon Basin are challenging the tight grip that large corporations have on the forest. CNN spoke with nearly 60 women in this region who make their living gathering coconuts from native babassu palm trees, and say their livelihoods are increasingly under threat as large agricultural companies continue to tear down the forest and restrict women’s access to the trees.

More than 2,000 women rallied together to create the Babassu Coconut Breakers Movement to protect and ensure access to the native babassu palm forest.

This is not only a battle for their own food security, but also a fight for gender equality, members of the group told CNN, and it’s one which they hope will boost sustainable farming and help better protect this crucial rainforest.

In the forests of northeast Brazil, many women rely on the babassu palm tree to support their families.

Luna Sofia, 5, sits at the window sill of her grandmother’s home in Vila Esperança, Brazil.

Babassu nuts are gathered after being broken out of coconut shells in Olho d’Água do Cercado, Brazil. The women who harvest them sell oil extracted from the nuts and create a type of flour called mesocarp.

Maria de Fatima Ferreira, one of the coordinators of the Babassu Coconut Breakers Movement, sits at home in Olho d’Água do Cercado with a cake baked with the babassu flour.

Klesia Lima da Conceição, a member of the movement, holds her 3-month-old son, Kassio, while bathing in a dam where she used to swim when she was a child in Vila São Pedro, Brazil.

Maria de Fatima Ferreira and Francisca das Chagas Araújo Lima carry baskets on their way back from collecting babassu coconuts in Olho d’Água do Cercado.

Maria Oneide Barros Carvalho’s dining room at her home in Vila Esperança.

Maria do Socorro Nunes rests at home in Vila São Pedro. The married mother of three experiences a whirlwind of activity from the moment she wakes up around 5 a.m.: cleaning, cooking, raising her children, gathering and breaking coconuts, growing her herb garden, and raising animals. She lives in an area where babassu palm trees were cleared to make room for cattle pastures.

Children play at dusk in Vila Esperança.

Francisca Lima Rodriguez, 34, says she has been working with the babassu coconuts since she was 12.

Elane da SIlva Rodrigues peels a babassu coconut at a collective production house in Vila Esperança.

Mãe Maria do Amparo holds 3-month-old Kassio during a break from work in Vila São Pedro.

Children sit on a porch at dusk in Vila Esperança. Working with coconuts is how many women in these communities support their families. “If it weren’t for the babassu, what would become of us?” one of them wondered.

Adriana Zehbrauskas is a Brazilian documentary photographer based in Phoenix. Her work is largely focused on issues related to migration, religion, human rights and underrepresented communities.

Human trafficking in the Philippines

A sex trafficking victim visits her home in the Philippines’ Pampanga province, a region highly vulnerable to extreme flooding.

Photographs by Lisa Marie David for CNN

One of the most pernicious ways the climate crisis can worsen gender inequality is by increasing the risk of sexual abuse and human trafficking.

The climate crisis destroys livelihoods, throws people into poverty, forces them away from their homes and communities — and for women and girls, it exacerbates their vulnerability to sexual exploitation, according to a 2022 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Abusers and traffickers are more able to target women and girls who find themselves in unfamiliar towns or forced into densely populated camps and shelters, crowded with strangers.

In the Philippines, the UN found that human trafficking increased in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which killed more than 6,000 people and displaced 4.4 million.

Climate scientists expect the frequency of the strongest typhoons and hurricanes to increase significantly in the coming decades, more than doubling by 2050 in nearly all regions of the world.

The Philippines has numerous organizations dedicated to trying to end human trafficking. The People's Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance (PREDA) Foundation helps free women and girls from brothels and sex traffickers and provides a refuge for survivors.

Flooded homes are seen in August after Typhoon Doksuri hit Macabebe, a town in the Pampanga province.

The red-light district in Angeles City is a hot spot for sex tourism in Pampanga.

A 16-year-old sex trafficking victim takes shelter at the PREDA Home for Abused Girls in Subic, a town in the Zambales province of the Philippines.

Victims of sex trafficking and sexual assault participate in a group activity at the PREDA shelter in Subic.

A Macabebe home is flooded in the aftermath of monsoon rains and Typhoon Doksuri, known as Egay in the Philippines.

Young girls attend a class at the PREDA shelter in Subic.

People visit the red-light district in Angeles City. For many women in the region, it’s practically “socially accepted” to take part in the sex industry, said Peter Paul Cabrera, a social worker with PREDA.

Girls prepare meals at the PREDA shelter in Subic.

An aerial view of Macabebe after Typhoon Doksuri.

A sex trafficking victim sits on a swing outside the PREDA shelter in Subic.

People sit outside a bar in the red-light district in Angeles City. “All I hear is simple: ‘We want to provide for our families. We have to feed our family, our children, our fathers. We have to have sex with somebody who can pay us, compensate us,’ ” Cabrera, the PREDA social worker, told CNN.

A young sex trafficking victim visits her home in the Pampanga province.

People ride a boat along a flooded road in Macabebe. The region experiences an average of 20 typhoons per year.

Lisa Marie David is a Filipina photojournalist based in Manila. She has a post-graduate degree in visual journalism from the Asian Center for Journalism at Ateneo de Manila University.

Maternal health in Pakistan

Women help Mukhtiyar Mangi walk home the day after she delivered her newborn daughter in Shikarpur, a city in the Sindh province of Pakistan.

Photographs by Saiyna Bashir for CNN

Pregnant women have a unique vulnerability to climate change — especially extreme heat. A mounting body of evidence has revealed links between heat waves and a slew of maternal health problems, including premature births, stillbirths and low birth weights.

For every 1 degree Celsius of temperature increase, the number of stillbirths and premature deliveries rises by about 5%, according to an analysis of 70 studies published by the British Medical Journal in 2020.

Sindh province in southeastern Pakistan is home to Jacobabad, one of the hottest cities on Earth. In 2022, an extreme heat wave in the province saw temperatures top 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).

Women in Sindh who were pregnant during this time told researchers from the maternal health nonprofit White Ribbon Alliance that they experienced myriad health problems, including fainting, sickness, loss of appetite and dehydration, according to a report published this year.

Many had no choice but to keep working and often outside, with little respite from scorching temperatures, which taxed their bodies further.

Even after birth, some women reported problems breastfeeding in the heat and concerns for their newborn’s health in stifling homes without fans or any other way to keep cool. The women called for better financial support and access to solar panels to power fans.

Dr. Safinaz Shah, a medical superintendent at the Ganga Bai Hospital in Shikarpur, supervises as Zaib-Un-Nisa gives birth.

Lal Khatoon, who was nine months pregnant at the time this photo was taken, said it’s hard to get by without a fan or other means to keep cool as temperatures rise across the region.

Women work in a date factory in Shikarpur in August. At that time of year, farmers in the region mostly rely on dates to make a living. Many of them lost income due to recent flooding.

Qazbano Lashari waits to deliver her baby at the Maternal and Child Health Centre in Shikarpur. Research has shown that pregnant women in Pakistan who have been exposed to high levels of extreme heat during the third trimester of pregnancy had a higher risk of their babies experiencing preterm birth, stillbirth and low birth weight.

One-year-old Hajjani receives care in the nutrition ward of the Jacobabad Institute of Medical Sciences. Doctors said she was suffering from acute malnourishment. “We don’t have enough food for infants,” her grandmother said. “Our children have constantly been unwell with malaria and other diseases since last year’s floods.” Following a deadly heat wave that seared much of South Asia in 2022 — a heat wave that the World Meteorological Organization found was made 30 times more likely by climate change — torrential floodwaters submerged a third of Pakistan.

Women sow seeds in Jacobabad rice fields. Three of them were at different stages of their pregnancies. They tried to work in the fields early in the morning and also in the evening to avoid peak heat.

Lashari splashes water over her face to cool off. Members of her family were helping monitor her temperature as she was going into labor.

Date farms in Shikarpur are inundated by floodwaters.

Zahra Bibi carries a cooler with water as she and other women prepare to work in the rice fields in Jacobabad. Many women in the region work through their pregnancies and are especially vulnerable to rising temperatures.

Mangi and her newborn daughter rest at their home in Shikarpur. She said that she was still in a lot of pain and felt suffocated at home since it doesn’t have much ventilation.

Khatoon washes clothes at a hand pump in Shikarpur. She was nine months pregnant and could go into labor at any time.

A midwife checks Lashari’s vitals at the Maternal and Child Health Centre in Shikarpur.

People gather in an outdoor waiting area at the Jacobabad Institute of Medical Sciences.

Two-day-old Neerab is held by her grandmother, who said she spent the whole day with her granddaughter while trying to keep her safe from the extreme temperatures. “It is very difficult to keep her cool in this heat,” she said.

Khatoon walks near rice fields in Shikarpur. Last year, scientists said that climate change is making the odds of record-breaking heat waves hitting Pakistan and northwestern India 100 times more likely.

Saiyna Bashir is a Pakistani photojournalist based in Islamabad. She often documents issues related to migration, gender, health care and climate change.

Migration in Guatemala

Women walk among vegetable crops, which are the main economic driver in the town of Almolonga, Guatemala.

Photographs by Victoria Razo for CNN

Guatemala is one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries. The rainy season, which used to reliably start in May, has shifted much later. And when the rains do come, they are often intense and destructive.

The impact on Guatemala’s farming communities — including those in the country’s Western Highlands — is devastating. Destroyed crops and decimated livelihoods can force people from their homes in search of jobs and safety in other towns, and even other countries.

Women in these communities, many of whom have limited access to education and financial and social power, tend to shoulder the greatest impact. Men make up the majority of those who migrate, leaving women with a double burden: protecting their homes and children, and finding a way to make money until the men can send home remittances.

The global climate crisis could displace 1.2 billion people from their homes by 2050, according to a 2020 report from the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace.

While it’s hard to show a direct link between migration and climate change in Guatemala — there isn’t the data, and the decision to migrate is always based on many factors — many experts say climate change is an increasingly important trigger.

Nonprofits such as the Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation are trying to ease the hardship by investing in women and girls in some of the country’s isolated communities. They are helping fund education and leadership training and teaching them skills such as agroforestry.

Bags of food wait be delivered to children and their families in Paraje León, Guatemala. Paraje León is a rural community with one of the highest rates of poverty and malnutrition in the country, and government institutions created programs to combat child malnutrition by delivering food to families.

Marina Roblero de Solís is the mother of five children, four of whom have emigrated to the United States due to economic challenges.

Patricia Solis, 25, recently emigrated to the United States. She is Marina's fourth daughter to leave her home in La Igualdad, Guatemala.

Carmen Mercedes Yax, center right, works with other women to pack food that will be delivered to a school in Paraje León. Her husband emigrated to New York in 2021 in search of better opportunities to support his family.

These radish crops in Almolonga have been affected by strong water currents during heavy rains.

Hazel Carmen León Yax, 6, plays with her grandmother's sheep in a field in Paraje León.

Mothers line up to register to receive food that will be delivered to a school in Paraje León.

A farmer displays varieties of corn in La Igualdad. The effects of climate change and rising global temperatures have lowered crop yields in Guatemala’s farming communities.

María Julia Siquina Cacatzun farms crops in the Almolonga countryside in order to support her child. Her ex-partner emigrated to the United States when their son was 1 year old, and she says she hasn’t heard from him since.

Isabel Bate, 6, carries a chicken in the yard of her house in Paraje Leon. Her father migrated to Houston in search of better job opportunities.

Food that will be delivered to children sits inside an abandoned classroom in Paraje León.

Isabel Cac Tzunux harvests tomatoes in Paraje León. Her three sons emigrated to Texas in search of better wages because they earned little in their hometown and the harvest they worked had been decreasing.

Carmen Mercedes Yax washes and peels beans to sell while caring for her children, Hazel and Denis, in Paraje León.

A photograph of Yax’s husband, Melvin León Chacaj, sits on the table where she does embroidery to generate extra income.

Indigenous women farmers sell their vegetable crops at a market in Almolonga. If women farmers had the same access to resources as men, agricultural production in low- or middle-income countries would increase by up to 4%, which can lead to a roughly 17% decline in global hunger, according to a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Victoria Razo is a Mexican photojournalist based between Mexico City and Veracruz. Her work focuses on human rights, gender, migration and environmental issues.

Child marriage in Bangladesh

Hira Moni, 15, holds her 8-month-old son, Mohammad. She got married when she was 12 years old. Her parents’ house in Gabura, Bangladesh, is prone to flooding. “Parents marry off their daughters because when disasters come, our house goes underwater often,” she said.

Photographs by Fabeha Monir for CNN

Bangladesh is considered an “emergency hotspot” for girls’ rights according to humanitarian nonprofit Save the Children, which ranks countries with the highest risks that a girl will both be married as a child and face life-changing consequences from climate change.

The low-lying country is extremely vulnerable to the climate crisis. As the impacts of extreme weather push people further into poverty, and families become desperate to relieve some financial strain, the nonprofit says the risks of child marriage increase.

Twelve million girls are married before the age of 18 each year globally, according to Girls Not Brides. That is 23 girls every minute.

Marufa Khatun, from Satkhira in southwest Bangladesh, was married at 11 because her parents could no longer manage after cyclones and floods ripped through their community. Now 14, she is the mother of a 3-month-old baby. “I got married early because natural disasters are happening frequently now and our father cannot afford our expenses,” she told CNN.

Governments around the world have committed to end child marriage by 2030. But a recent analysis from Save the Children found that almost 9 million girls worldwide face extreme risk of climate disasters and child marriage every year.

Shahnaz, 17, was married at age 14 as her father was unable to provide for the family after a cyclone destroyed their home. “I dream to raise my child in a good manner,” she said. “I don’t want him to have a life like mine.”

Sathi Mondol, 16, was seven months pregnant when this photo was taken. “After my marriage, I didn’t try to study because I got pregnant,” she said. “Now I am waiting for my child. Still, now I am a child. I think it will be difficult for me to raise a child.”

Disha Mistry, 17, married her husband one year ago. “I told my parents that I don’t want to get married, but because of poverty and natural disasters they decided about my marriage,” she said.

Marufa Khatun, 14, recently gave birth. She was married at age 11. “Women and girls are suffering more than men in this area,” she said. “Girls collect water and do all the household work.”

Many women in the mangrove forests of Bangladesh rely on fishing to earn a living. They also often have to travel long distances to collect safe drinking water.

"It’s very difficult to do household work, cook and manage a family at this young age,” Mondol said. “I cannot play with anyone. I used to play with dolls, marbles and other toys, but now I cannot play because no one will allow me. I used to bathe in the pond earlier and loved catching fish, but now I cannot."

Shahnaz, right, watches other girls play. “If there were fewer natural disasters like cyclones and floods in the area and no water crisis, then the girls in the area would have studied (more) and suffered less,” she said.

Kanchan Gain, 17, got married this year. She says she was happy because girls in the area usually get married at a younger age. “Young girls are getting married here because of poverty and natural disasters,” she said.

"Sometimes I think I am a child,” Gain said. “I want to play again. I love to play with marbles, but when I went to my husband’s house I can’t play."

“When I was pregnant, I couldn’t go to school,” Khatun said. “But now I am trying to attend school again.”

Fabeha Monir is a Bangladeshi photojournalist based in Dhaka. Her work explores social development, climate change, migration, gender violence and forced exile in marginalized communities.

Gender-based violence in Kenya

A young woman in Oltepesi, Kenya, gets ready to carry jugs of water home. Women who trek long distances to fetch water face a greater risk of violence, according to the UN.

Photographs by Khadija Farah for CNN

In less than a year Kenya has transitioned from a catastrophic multi-year drought to deadly flooding. In a country where 75% of people rely on farming for their main source of income, according to the World Bank, the swing between extremes is a crisis.

The extreme weather has triggered acute food insecurity and displacement. It’s also increasing the risk of gender-based violence, multiple studies have found. While the drivers of violence against women and girls are complex and multi-faceted, experts are clear that climate change amplifies the risks.

Stress from loss of income can aggravate intimate partner violence and during times of disaster, women may also be coerced into sexual exploitation in exchange for necessities or be forced to trek long distances to fetch food and water, putting them at greater risk of violence.

Violence against women and girls is the most widespread and pervasive human rights violation worldwide, estimated to affect one in three women throughout their lifetime, according to the UN.

Organizations are trying to break the cycle. The Coalition on Violence Against Women, a nonprofit in Kenya, champions the rights of women and girls and seeks to protect them from all forms of violence through advocacy and by providing services and resources.

Joy Kurasoi says her marriage worsened as severe droughts hit the Iseneto village in Kenya’s Narok County, where she and her family live. Her husband, a cattle rancher, would often come home frustrated from a day at work, and she says she is often the target of his anger. “He hasn’t been acting the same way because the drought has affected him,” she said.

A young boy herds goats in Iseneto.

Maitei Ene Sankok, a mother of 10, sits at her home in Oltepesi. Because of the drought, she says, her crop has failed for the past three harvests. It has put a strain on her relationship. “I have gone through a lot of domestic violence with my husband, and I would not like that for my children,” she said.

The only water point in Oltepesi serves communities up to 19 miles away, with one pipe exclusively for livestock and the other for people.

Catherine Tianta washes dishes at her home in the Olorropil village in Narok County. Because of a physical disability she was born with, she is not able to collect water herself. She doesn’t allow her daughter to fetch water because of the risk of abuse, she says. Instead, her family buys water from the nearest town.

A man herds cattle in Narok County.

Sankok stands among cornstalks at her farm in Oltepesi. She says she used to be able to eat what her farm produces, but she now has to buy from the nearest market or travel several hours to get it in bulk from a wholesaler.

The water point in Oltepesi is busy at all hours of the day. Women often spend the night at the water point, carrying blankets and flasks of tea to keep warm.

Khadija Farah is a Kenyan photographer based in Nairobi. She aims to tell stories that challenge public discourse while capturing people’s daily lives, often focusing on issues related to climate change and gender.



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