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A Sustainable Future: Global Women Take on Climate Change

Motivated to improve life in their communities, women around the world are changing the status quo.

When roads in her hometown, Damascus, Syria, became nearly impassable due to traffic and government checkpoints, 24-year old Sarah Zein made a novel decision. Defying cultural norms, she rode her bicycle to work despite the stares and catcalls she encountered en route. Undeterred and driven to be a force for change, Zein founded “Yalla Let’s Bike”, a community movement that encourages women to cycle for transportation and pleasure. “Yalla Let’s Bike” also promotes a more sustainable lifestyle for Damascus locals. The group coordinates citywide bike rides, works with municipal government to support eco-initiatives including bike lanes, and provides greater access to cycling with free lessons (Goering, 2018).

“Yalla Let’s Bike” not only inspired upward of 4,000 women to bicycle on city streets but also moved Momentum for Change, a program led by the United Nations Climate Change secretariat, to recognize Zein’s transformative efforts in Syria. Momentum for Change celebrates global climate change activities that encourage social, economic, and environmental progress (“Momentum for,” n.d.). The United Nations prioritizes women, like Zein, as critical voices for climate action in local, national, and international forums.

Female leadership in climate action can address dire trends that have a disproportionate effect on women. While indicators of climate change, from water scarcity and extreme weather to flooding and resource contamination, are increasingly part of daily life for many, gender is an important variable (Lin, 2018). The Overseas Development Institute, a British think-tank, cites research indicating that women are at greater risk when communities face climate-related challenges (Lin, 2018). In Bangladesh, the difficulties of making a living in the countryside have put girls at risk for child marriage (Goering, 2017). Research at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University links climate change to an increased rate of HIV infection, especially among young girls who must leave their agricultural communities for work in urban centers (Lazareva, 2019). 

Motivated to improve life in their communities, women around the world are changing the status quo. In Sadiya, a village in northeast India, higher temperatures and erratic rainfall mean decreased crop yields. While men travel elsewhere to find work, at least 2,500 Sadiya women turned to weaving as an income source for their families. They joined weaving collectives, raised silkworms, and sought professional development with expert weavers (Basu, 2019). This unexpected career shift communicates women’s resourcefulness and creativity in a changing environment.

As Momentum for Change acknowledges, climate action initiatives are enmeshed with issues of equity, opportunity, and quality of life. When women are empowered to act on climate challenges, there are ripple effects in their households. Studies show that when women control their families’ finances, they make larger investments in education, healthcare, and local economies (Benerji, 2018). A sustainable future, built from women’s ideas and ingenuity, is also a more just future.

From the emergence of women’s groups in coffee-growing communities in Indonesia (Taylor, 2019) to training opportunities for women as community solar engineers in Tanzania (Milne, 2019), female contributions to climate action are already embedded in local infrastructure. In recognizing the power of women’s voices, organizations like the United Nations are providing grassroots initiatives with a platform to inspire transformative change.

The Center for Global Women’s Health (CGWH) at Penn Nursing shares this mission. CGWH faculty and students prioritize sustainable and collaborative projects that empower women. Acutely aware of the intersection between social determinants of health and women’s well-being, CGWH is interested in supporting women’s solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges. Advocates as well as researchers, the team at CGWH ensures that women’s work is visible. Climate action and the conservation of environmental resources are areas where women’s leadership will be instrumental to moving the world towards a sustainable future.

Writer: Amy Smith