Women's Voices in Climate Change

Last updated on:March 15, 2022

From kitchen to street: women’s voices in climate change


By Hestia Zhang & Jasmine Zhang

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After a day’s work, a woman comes back home and enters the kitchen to prepare a warm and delicious dinner for the family. “I’m full,” she said after taking off her apron.

For the symptom of being unable to eat after cooking, experts suggested it may be caused by excessive fatigue, or the lampblack produced from cooking oil under high temperature.

Lampblack will not only make people lose their appetite, but also harm people’s health. A 2009 survey from Tongji University in Shanghai found that due to long-term exposure to high-temperature cooking fumes, middle-aged and elderly women faced two to three times higher risks of lung cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, around three billion people still rely on solid fuels, including biomass and coal, for cooking and heating, and most of these families use primitive open fires or low-quality stoves. Incomplete combustion of solid fuel releases toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases, which worsens climate change. The World Meteorological Organization warned that the temperature could rise 3-5°C by the end of the century if the current trend continues, bringing about more extreme weather events such as drought and wildfires.

Women are more vulnerable to the impacts of pollution and climate change. Efforts to combat climate change can play an important role in improving the health and wealth conditions of women, especially in less developed areas. However, women are often left out of the conversation.

International organizations have been calling for measures to listen to women’s voices and empower women in the fight against climate change. They emphasize that a gender perspective is essential to the implementation of efficient and sustainable policies.

Stuck in Kitchen

Various studies have indicated that despite growing career opportunities, women are still doing more household chores than men. According to a research on the gendered division of labor in China, women undertook 62.5% of the housework and spent 37 minutes cooking every day. The gender gap had increased from 1996 to 2016, especially in married groups.

Spending more time in the kitchen means that women are prone to indoor air pollution. It can give rise to respiratory problems, heart disease and lung cancer. Household air pollution is responsible for around four million premature deaths every year, according to the WHO.

Figures released by the National Cancer Center indicated that from 2000 to 2014, the incidence of lung cancer among women in China nearly doubled. Lung cancer is the second most common cancer among all women, with the highest mortality rate. But more than 80% of the female lung cancer patients in China never smoke.

Photo Credit: Romana Manpreet for Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership founded in 2020, has been seeking to empower women and protect the environment by providing clean and efficient household cooking solutions.

Over the years, other countries involved in the GACC have made significant progress. The Indian Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has developed new national standards for biomass cookstoves. Ghana has distributed 70,000 Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders to rural families. The government of Bangladesh targets a 100% coverage of clean cooking solutions by 2030.

In 2016, GACC established a committee in China and launched seven pilot projects, aiming at setting up 40 million clean cookstoves nationwide by 2020. Former CEO Radha Muthiah said the project could contribute to improving air quality, women’s and children’s health, and creating a better living environment for rural people.

China has launched a series of Clean Air Action Plans to tackle air pollution. According to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the number of “heavily polluted days” in China’s 337 cities dropped 36.6% in 2019 thanks to the reduction of excess capacity, the renovation of coal-fired power plant emissions and the rectification of coal-burning boilers.

However, there are hardly any updates about the GACC in China since the program was launched in 2016.

Changes in the kitchen can not only bring advantages to women, but also impose positive impacts on the mitigation of climate change.

For one thing, clean cooking solutions can reduce the time needed for collecting firewoods, cooking and cleaning. Women can spend more time attending schools and engaging in paid work outside families.

For another, clean cookstoves can help fight deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. An evaluation report suggested that a clean stove is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions equal to one ton of carbon dioxide every year.

Awareness to Action

Previous researches on the eco gender gap suggested that women are more aware of environmental protection topics, such as energy use, disposable packaging and household waste separation.

Zhang Miao, founder of Rcubic, a social enterprise providing solutions for waste management, said that more than 70% of their account followers are women. “Women are more concerned about environmental protection overall. Female practitioners and followers take up the majority of almost all environmental issues, at least in China,” she explained.

The disposal and treatment of waste, especially organic waste from the kitchen, could have a direct impact on the environment and result in natural disasters. It is reported that food waste in transportation and consumption alone accounts for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Waste incineration can generate energy, but people are not willing to see a power plant in their neighborhood. Landfill is the cheapest method, but can give rise to environmental issues. Effective recycling is therefore essential to the environment and the climate.

In July 2019, Shanghai implemented its strictest compulsory waste sorting rules. Old trash cans were removed and replaced by unified stations. Domestic waste is required to be categorized into wet garbage, dry garbage, recyclable or hazardous waste.

The policy changed people’s consumption and eating habits in the workplace and households. A report from CBNData showed an increasing demand for garbage disposal units in the kitchen. Young female consumers were the driving force, especially those with children.

“Women are responsible for more household chores and worried about how to deal with waste at home,” Zhang said, “Not only those thrown into trash bins, but also idle items such as old clothes, old toys and old books.” She noted that by handling the trivial matters of a family, women usually have a better sense of waste generated in this process.

Photo Credit: nippon.com

When talking about waste management, the media often refers to successful experiences in Japan. In Kamikatsu, a small town in southwestern Japan, garbage is separated into 45 categories. At a craft center, elderly women make new products out of the discarded materials.

While the Japanese model requires joint efforts ranging from product design to the workforce, it is worth noting that the domestic division of labor also plays an important role. Japanese women contribute much more time and energy after marriage to dealing with household chores, often at the expense of their careers.

Akira Sakano is the chairwoman of Zero Waste Academy, a nonprofit organization driving the waste management policy in Kamikatsu. She acknowledged in an interview with the World Economic Forum that despite community efforts, a 100% zero waste target would not be possible without the bigger system and wider stakeholders.

“It’s important that world leaders now take their turn to make circular economy happen,” Sakano said.

Make a Difference

The Homemakers United Foundation (HUF) is one of the earliest grassroots environmental protection organizations in Taiwan. It was founded by a group of women who first gathered together in 1987 to discuss the waste disposal in households and communities.

Lin Yu-Pei, managing director at the HUF, said that housewives were the major manufacturer and cleaner of household waste, including food waste.

“The perspectives, characteristics and networks of women, especially housewives, have made environmental protection movements in Taiwan more inclusive and cooperative, led to penetrating changes and altruistic and common goals,” she said.

Lin introduced that the solutions chosen by male-dominated departments were influenced by technological governance and mostly relied on incineration or landfill. The women in the foundation focused more on recycling, and they refused to use products that cause harm to people and the environment, so as to solve the problem from the origin.

Also, compared with the traditional top-down decision-making, women are more inclined to take family and community as the starting point, set themselves as examples, and encourage the government and people to act together.

Photo Credit: Homemakers United Foundation

During the past 30 years, they have pushed the establishment of the municipal waste management system in Taiwan, launched environmental protection projects, paved the way for more female environmental activists and promoted educational activities for the new generation.

Starting from a few housewives who grew up with better educational opportunities for women, the HUF gradually became a driving force and a watchdog holding the government accountable for environmental policies, and proved that women should get involved in public affairs as well.

However, Lin noted that the journey was not always smooth.

First of all, it is not easy to gain understanding and support from family members. Housewives are susceptible to the situation within the family and tend to sacrifice themselves to take care of family members.

Besides, due to social stereotypes, women will face criticism or language harassment by men once they participate in public marches or protests. Even when it comes to the formulation of policies, they are sometimes considered “unprofessional” and treated with arrogance by officials or experts.

Despite the pressure and unpleasant attitudes, Lin said, members of the Foundation still adhered to their initiatives and actions, and there were constantly new members joining in.

“The thoughts and actions of individual housewives are like a drop of water, and it is too small to make a difference,” she said, “But through the women-owned organization, housewives can join hands to learn, operate, make appeals and take action. They can gather together as a trickle to loosen and change the structure and connotation of the existing system.”

Success stories of female activists worldwide have shed light on gender-sensitive solutions in the environmental sector. Many countries have witnessed positive changes after involving women in decision-making.

Women-led organizations in India have improved communal waste systems and create a better environment for waste pickers. Female members of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) have dedicated decades of efforts to compete with males in the industry. Women of Waste (WOW) showcased a variety of career opportunities in sustainable waste management.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recommended its member countries to increase the share of women among leadership positions. It encourages more female experts to take part in the assessment reports to gain better insights.

Future in Hand

Waste disposal facilities will be implemented in 46 key Chinese cities by the end of 2020, according to targets set by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MHURD) in 2017. The household recycling rate in these cities is supposed to reach 35% as new policies come into effect.

The policy marked a brand-new era for waste management in China and gave rise to newly registered companies in the environment sector. Women-led groups in China are also joining forces to raise awareness of the new regulations.

Shanghai Women’s Federation has recruited 100,000 volunteers, who organized workshops for housewives and actively engaged in the door-to-door promotion. Environmental organization IFINE has been offering solutions and workshops to individuals and organizations. Members of the Shaanxi Volunteer Mothers Association for Environmental Protection have shared their waste management experiences in urban areas and villages.

Lin said it was the process of environmental movements that women became aware of the inequalities, thus intentionally and unintentionally fostered gender mainstreaming. The stereotype of women’s role and the participation rate in professional fields are still preventing them from reaching their full potential.

“When co-organizing conferences and events with male-dominated groups, they would allocate tasks such as preparing meals and refreshments to the HUF,” she recalled the hilarious memories.

Entering the third decade of the 21st century, after all the achievements and possibilities, how could the promotion of gender equality and the mitigation of climate change become more closely intertwined to have a better future?

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