Climate Change's greatest victims are women and girls

As climate disasters worsen, women and girls are left more vulnerable than ever

Zainab Waheed, Youth climate activist and journalist
08 December 2023

"We had nothing to eat for fifteen days," sighed Sajida (20), as she recounted to me her experiences of the 2022 floods in Pakistan. "My whole family got Malaria, and we couldn't access medicines or hospitals as Khairpur was drowned."

Her words ached with loss, and her voice with grief as the flood survivor continued. "When I went back to school after three months, I couldn't understand concepts, and did so poorly in my exams that I couldn't graduate to the next class." Her parents did not have enough funds to help her repeat another school year.

Sajida Batool's house in the Sindh province was washed away, leaving her family in a months-long struggle to relocate. She wanted to grow up to be a doctor, but poverty and repetitive climate catastrophes have robbed her of these aspirations, turning her into a refugee seeking shelter from the battering rains which inundated a third of Pakistan last year. 


Sajida is just one of the 33 million Pakistani victims of the catastrophic floods last year, who lost their lives, homes, and livelihoods. She is scared that this year or the next, the floods will repeat and wash away her dreams again. Lived experiences like Sajida's become mere statistics in headlines. Yet they show a harsh reality: that invariably, climate disasters impact women and girls disproportionately owing to their pre-existing socio-economic vulnerabilities.

The UN estimates that 80% of the people displaced by climate change are women. Last year's devastating floods alone left almost 650,000 pregnant Pakistani women deprived of access to healthcare, forced to give birth under the open sky. The relentless floods also left eight million girls and women without access to basic menstrual hygiene products and toilets to manage their period.

As gender-based violence exacerbates in the wake of climate crises, girls are increasingly being traded off into child marriages in return for food amidst climate-induced starvation across the world. Climate change, then, is not just an environmental phenomenon, it is a social injustice crisis that aggravates already existing injustices in communities. It is for this reason that any discussion on climate action is tokenistic in nature and futile in structure, unless it addresses the plight of women in climate crises.


With women across the world rallying for their rights and demanding climate justice, hope for change is not dim. From their mass demonstrations against gender-based violence in France in 2019, to the ongoing fight for reproductive rights in Argentina; from the recent "Women, Life, Freedom" movement in Iran, to their leadership of climate marches, women have proven that they possess the potential to organize masses, lead them and speak truth to power. It is this potential that needs harnessing and investment to make social and climate discussions valid and holistic.


As a climate activist, I believe in the power of women to rally for the causes that affect them the most. My family comes from a village in northern Pakistan where people rely on mountain streams, called Katthay in the Hindko language, for their water.

Changing rainfall patterns rendered our Katthay dry, forcing women and girls to drop out of school, to travel miles for mere liters of fresh water on foot every day. I have since seen climate change as an aggravator of existing social challenges. People who have done the least to cause it, suffer the most from its impacts, and with the least capacity to deal with its consequences.

Resentment at this climate injustice propelled me towards climate activism. Today, I teach girls from local Madrassas (informal Islamic schools in Pakistan) about climate change to help them become significant agents in rallying for climate action. As a climate journalist, I bring to Pakistan's grassroots the women-centric climate discourse that has long been missing from its public consciousness. I have also represented Pakistan at multiple international climate conferences, and in my dialogues with government officials and global climate experts, I highlight the importance of meaningful inclusion of women in climate policymaking. By dedicating my energy and efforts to highlighting the need for a gendered approach to climate solutions, I hope to become a voice in a much larger symphony of women calling for immediate climate action.

Delay in this climate action, lack of accountability for climate criminals, and the gradual conversion of annual climate conferences into networking opportunities for fossil fuels lobbyists and major carbon emitters, all contribute to climate anxiety and pessimism. However, past evidence of strong leadership and activism from women serves as a reminder of the future they can build, with apt investments into their education and capacity building to do so.

"I pray that I never have to spend dark nights in cold, muddy waters again," says Sajida.

In her words her hope outweighs her hopelessness. This hope can manifest into reality with women-focused climate education at the grassroots of Pakistan, a gendered approach to climate solutions, and women-centric climate policy making.

Zainab Waheed
About the Author:

Zainab Waheed is an 18-year-old youth climate activist and journalist who works to educate and mobilize climate-vulnerable communities in Pakistan. Zainab is a UNICEF Youth Foresight Fellow, represents Pakistan in the United Nations Youth Force, and has been the official delegate of her country to the C40 World Mayors Summit, and the Youth4Climate Summits of 2021 and 2022. She has published over 20 climate stories, articles and commentaries nationally and internationally.

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