Paving the Way for Inclusive Climate Futures with Adolescent Girls

With COP27 happening right now, meaningful engagement and co-leadership with adolescent girls and advocates is more urgent than ever. Youth activists Aminah Kirungi, a Youth and Gender Officer from the SRHR Alliance Uganda, and Dagmawit Workagegnehu, the Founder of Safer-SRHR and a Women Deliver Young Leader from Ethiopia, discuss why working at the intersection of climate and gender is essential for building inclusive climate futures.

Around the world, particularly in low-income countries and marginalized communities, the climate crisis has exacerbated existing gender inequalities and disrupted girls’ access to education, health services, and critical support networks. Despite a growing awareness of the intersection between climate and adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), many climate activists and policymakers overlook the impact of climate change on SRHR, as well as the critical importance of SRHR to climate adaptation and resilience. They fail to include those most impacted by climate change, including adolescent girls, when devising climate policies and strategies. At the same time, some SRHR advocates remain uncertain how to integrate climate justice into their advocacy. Seeking to break down these silos, young advocates like Dagmawit and Aminah are helping to shed light on these interlinkages in their work with adolescent girls, as well as why we need an integrated advocacy approach to address these issues.

Aminah Kirungi, 23, Uganda — Youth and Gender Officer, SRHR Alliance Uganda

As a global SRHR and climate change advocate, I have come to recognize that most approaches to gender-centered initiatives focus primarily on navigating the biological and social factors affecting the SRHR of girls and women. Interventions to improve adolescent girls’ SRHR should consider how climate shapes SRHR access and the overall vulnerability and resilience of girls and women.

For instance, in Uganda, consequences of climate change such as shoreline erosion have become increasingly common, displacing many people, and semi-arid areas such as the Karamoja subregion continue to face extreme drought, food insecurity, and economic precarity. In these communities, climate change exacerbates the structural inequalities that already exist, further limiting access to decision-making and making life more difficult for girls and women. When men migrate, for instance, girls and women are often pressured to leave school in order to help manage households or are forced into child marriages to help alleviate the economic burden on families. Water scarcity has also forced girls to travel further to find resources, resulting in greater incidents of gender-based violence, rape, and harassment. When considering these systemic inequalities, it is clear how climate change can shape adolescent girls’ lives.

We need projects that specialize in different climate contexts and populations, such as displaced people, migrants, adolescent girls, and youth. Climate refugees, for example, have specific needs such as relief that shape their access to SRH services. When the unique experiences of a population, as well as the intersecting identities individuals hold, are not taken into consideration, access to these services is even more strained.

Dr. Dagmawit Workagegnehu, 26, Ethiopia — Safer-SRHR Founder and Women Deliver Young Leader

As a medical doctor working in Ethiopia, I have witnessed the impacts of climate change on SRHR firsthand. Ethiopians have endless stories about how climate change has affected our communities. Ethiopia and other countries in East Africa have been severely affected by unprecedented heat waves, droughts, and flooding. In these same communities, SRHR is not prioritized, protected, promoted, or fulfilled. Adolescents are more vulnerable to early marriage and lack access to key SRH services. Although these issues seem different, the same population in these communities is vulnerable to the effects of both climate change and poor SRHR, and their vulnerability is increased by experiencing both these crises at the same time.

For instance, in Ethiopia’s Gambella region, over 74,000 people were recently displaced by devastating floods. As a result, adolescent girls from more than 4,000 households faced separation from their families, increasing girls’ exposure and vulnerability to gender-based violence, rape, and sexual and labor exploitation. There is also the physical cost of climate change. For example, extensive flooding damaged medical equipment in Nyinegnang Primary Hospital and curtailed access to SRHR services, making it difficult for medical providers to continue serving those in need. These disruptions affect the most marginalized the hardest. In the case of adolescent girls, the recent floods have resulted in school closures, which have cut off girls’ access to sexual health education and led to a rise in unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

The climate crisis also takes a toll on adolescent girls’ mental health. As girls drop out of school due to flood-related closures, their futures become more uncertain. This is compounded by the impact of the climate crisis on the adults in children’s lives, including greater instability and economic hardship. These changes increase psychological and emotional pressures which harm adolescent girls’ overall well-being.

Recommendations

Despite these clear interlinkages between climate, gender, and SRHR, mainstream approaches to tackling climate change and SRHR remain largely separate, and proposed solutions are often couched in terms of individual responsibility, rather than affirming the need for bold systemic change that centers the historical responsibility of wealthy nations and aims for climate justice. As world leaders, policymakers, researchers, activists, and the private sector gather in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 27th UN Climate Change Conference (COP27), they must learn from the lessons of past UN Climate Change Conferences. Last year at COP26 in Glasgow, many questioned the Conference’s effectiveness and critiqued the assembled parties for excluding youth from key decision-making spaces, overlooking the role of adolescents in developing climate resilience, mitigation, and adaptation strategies, and failing to take decisive action.

Stakeholders can start by recognizing climate change as a significant barrier to girls’ health and well-being which requires a gender-responsive and intersectional approach. They must invest in multi-sectoral interventions aimed at empowering girls and improving families’ livelihoods and ability to cope financially with distress. Additionally, they should focus on building resilience and supporting adaptation efforts, which includes SRHR. Finally, they should rally local support for SRHR and climate resilience interventions among religious and community leaders, including addressing misconceptions and dismantling the stigma around contraception.

Most importantly, adolescent girls should be centered in all decision-making, including those who face additional barriers and unmet needs due to race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, disability, chronic disease, and other factors. Engaging adolescent girls during all stages of climate change policymaking and program planning, as well as in all stages of disaster management, is crucial. Not only are they disproportionately impacted by climate change, but they have the creativity and lived experience to identify and implement transformative solutions — many already are! Many are also part of groups such as the SRHR and Climate Justice Coalition, which actively work to support the community of folks interested in the intersection of SRHR and climate.

We must be truly inclusive and intersectional in our responses to climate change and SRHR, breaking the silos that currently separate these areas of work and supporting local, grassroots, and indigenous projects, to ensure climate justice and a gender-equal world.

This blog was developed in collaboration between Women Deliver and Restless Development.

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