Want to Fight Climate Change? Support Women's Foundations.
Since we’re all inhabitants of the same Earth, it would stand to reason that we’ll all be equally impacted by climate change…but the data shows that’s just not true. The fact is, research shows that societies with the least gender equality are the most vulnerable to climate change. The result is that women and girls bear the brunt of floods, windstorms, droughts, wildfires, and heatwaves and slower changes to our seas, land, and agriculture—a staggering 80% of those displaced by climate change are women and girls, and women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die during a natural disaster. The reasons for that vary, according to research from the World Health Organization and the Population Reference Bureau, but especially in developing countries, it includes cultural norms (such as women not being allowed to learn how to swim due to modesty rules) and the inequitable distribution of power (women make up the majority of the world’s poor and are more dependent than men on natural resources for survival), resources (like women tending to have much less access to critical information on weather alerts), and education (less access to information on how to manage climate-related risks to agriculture and livestock).
While between 2015 to 2020 foundations more than doubled the amount of giving to groups focused on climate work, it still makes up just 2% of all grantmaker giving. Despite a dearth of mainstream funding, women’s foundations around the world are stepping up to fund critical climate work that centers who will be most affected: women and girls.
For example, Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres (FCAM), a women’s fund in Central America, supported a local feminist collective, Colectiva Feminista para el Desarrollo Local, in Suchitoto, El Salvador that was fighting against contaminated drinking water due to logging, forest fires, and excessive use of agro-chemicals. Their mission was to make clean drinking water a human right for residents through sustainable and gender-based community water management. In 2019, they were able to pass a voter referendum that made Suchitoto the first place in the country to enshrine the right to clean drinking water; now the government legally must prioritize residents’ water rights when considering new plans that could affect water sustainability.
As a result of FCAM’s training aspect, women in Suchitoto are far more involved in water management, with 10 women serving in leadership roles. That’s led to impressive results locally, such as new infrastructure for water delivery to areas that did not previously have access to running water. But training women for leadership roles also has a wider impact: a 2019 study showed that places with women in leadership have more stringent climate change policies and lower carbon dioxide emissions.
FCAM also helped create the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA), which connects the women's rights and environmental and climate justice movements. Through the GAGGA network, more than 400 women-led community-based organizations across 30 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are supported to lead transformation action for gender, environmental, and climate justice. One of the projects supported through GAGGA was the complaint presented in 2018 to the Interamerican Development Bank for violating, among others, its Operation Policy on Gender Equality, in relation to the large scale hydro projects Pojom II and San Andrés in Guatemala. Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente has been working closely with the women in the Mayan communities directly affected by this project, and together were able to get the Interamerican Development Bank to divest from the project and design of a responsible exit plan.
The Peggy and Jack Baskin Foundation, which focuses on intersectional feminism, specifically runs an Environmental Gender Justice grant program focused on nonprofit organizations primarily in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties (the tribal lands of the Amah Mutsun, Ohlone, Chalon, Awaswas, and Esselen nations), occasionally in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area, and organizations with statewide impact across California and beyond. Through this grant program, they support the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and the Itsu Circle, groups led by local Indigenous women. The organizations act as a model for land trusts and Indigenous Nations to work together to improve land stewardship and support tribal cultural practices that have helped sustain local lands and waterways for thousands of years. Supporting and respecting the knowledge of Indigenous women is especially important because it’s well documented that many tribes manage land and water in ways that help fight climate change by absorbing carbon and improving biodiversity.
Rockflower, a fund that focuses on women and girls as the key to global peace and prosperity, is investing to address climate change around the world. In Nicaragua, they helped create the Casa Congo program, where local women restore turtle habitats, implement new methods of rainwater harvesting, and reduce plastic trash in their environment; the group has collected more than 10,000 plastic bags from beaches and transformed them into rugs and other saleable items to build women’s financial sustainability into environmental sustainability.
Droughts are making it all but impossible for rural women in Kasese, Uganda to farm, leading to food insecurity and poverty. As a result, more women are forced into prostitution, and the resulting exposure to pregnancy and HIV/AIDS, as the only way to feed their children. Rockflower funded a 50-women training program in how to grow climate-appropriate micro gardens in rural areas or in urban ones like balconies or rooftops. Teaching methods for rainwater collection, growing the plants in recycled, locally-available materials such as old car tires and plastic bags, and creating their own organic pesticides and fertilizers allows low-income women to easily produce enough food for their families and to be able to sell the surplus for extra income. The program is a model of supporting women as a way to work through food insecurity in areas that are faced with prolonged drought due to climate change.
A lesser-known impact of climate change is the rise of gender-based violence to women, girls, and people who are LGBTQ. During climate-related natural disasters, women face increased violence and harassment, meaning an environmental crisis is also a humanitarian one. Women and girls are typically responsible for securing the family’s water and wood for fuel. Due to climate change, this often now requires traveling increasingly long distances, which not only creates additional security risks, but the time commitment often means girls must withdraw from school. For example, during periods of drought in Micronesia, women and girls were forced to walk farther to water wells, leading to a rise in rape. Pacific Island women bear the brunt of the climate crisis—and also have solutions. The Asia Foundation’s Pacific Islands program has helped develop the PowerShift Fund, led by Pacific women to address challenges like gender-based violence from climate change. During the April 2021 floods in Timor-Leste, the fund covered psychological support services to evacuees and emergency support to survivors of gender-based violence. Often after a disaster, men leave the area to find work elsewhere, making it dangerous for women and girls to return to their former homes without the protection of male family members, so the fund established three evacuation shelters that house over 1,500 people who couldn’t safely go home, mostly women and girls.
Movements for environmental justice are closely entwined with movements for gender and racial (especially Indigenous) liberation. As always with making true systemic change, it’s critical to center the people who have been most affected—for funders to listen rather than talk, to follow rather than lead, and to provide financial support to make the ideas a reality. With women and girls being the people most impacted by climate change, both everyday donors and big philanthropy can show support by directing more dollars to women’s foundations that are leading the fight for the future of our planet. —Elizabeth Barajas-Román
Elizabeth Barajas-Román is the President & CEO of the Women's Funding Network, the world’s largest philanthropic alliance for gender equity.