A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
192 countries are gathering in Copenhagen to agree on the text of a global deal to tackle climate change. It’s a dry process but the agreement which emerges will be a matter of life or death for millions of poor people across the globe.
I have seen for myself what is at stake for some of these people. My mother is Peruvian and this summer I had the opportunity of travelling to Peru as an ambassador of Oxfam.
Peru has 18 mountain ranges crowned by glaciers and these are all melting at an incredibly rapid rate due to global warming. Scientists predict they will have disappeared completely by 2020. This is not just an ecological problem; it is an extremely serious humanitarian emergency. Whole communities depend on the water from those glaciers for growing their crops and for their drinking water; in other words, for their lives. Climate change is a matter of survival for them.
Take a closer look and you will see that women are bearing the brunt of the climate burden. We have known for years that in developing countries poverty has a woman’s face. Seventy per cent of the 1,300 million people living in poverty in the world are women and girls. It is the same with climate change.
In the cyclone that devastated Bangladesh in 1991, five times more women than men died. Women were not warned about the approaching threat and are not taught to swim. Elsewhere, the droughts devastating Sub-Saharan Africa make the daily search for food, fuel and water - tasks normally carried out by women - more and more difficult. Sometimes women, particularly young girls, have to walk for hours to fetch water.
In Peru I met Elizabeth Ayma who like many women grows food for her family on a small patch of land. She told me that the unpredictable rainfall is destroying her crops, which makes it harder for her to feed her family and pay her children’s school fees.
However women are not simply passive victims of climate change – they are also one of our most effective weapons against it. Across the world women are often at the forefront of efforts to combat the climate threat. In Peru many of the women I met were involved in tree planting projects. Trees help the soil retain moisture when it’s dry and prevent it from being washed away in heavy rains. Eighty percent of farmers around the world are women. Their knowledge and experience will be critical as communities attempt to adapt to a changing climate.
So it is a curious irony that, until a few months ago women barely got a mention in the 200 pages of text on the climate deal. Thanks to the hard work of the Global Gender & Climate Alliance, a coalition of UN agencies, this has now changed. Twenty three paragraphs have been inserted which ensure, for example, that women have a say in planning projects to help poor communities adapt to climate change or reduce emissions.
The challenge now is to make sure the needs of women don’t fall off the agenda in the final frenzied days of negotiations and that women right across the world have their voices heard in a global agreement that affects them so much.
- Helena Christensen
Watch the slideshow: Helena Christensen's photos from Peru
Oxfam's Climate Change campaign