June 7, 2018 | By

Rural Girls Are on the Front Lines of Climate Change

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is thrilled to announce a new blog series, Stakeholder Girls, which highlights the central role that rural girls must play in consideration of the 2018 G7 priority theme areas. Each week in June, as the leadership of the G7 meets, we will discuss the central role of rural girls in responding to climate change, preparing for the future of work, economic growth and equality, and building a more secure world. If leaders do not consider the unique strengthens and concerns of rural girls, progress on each of these themes will be curtailed.
By Laura Glenn O'Carroll
Conversations on climate change are usually peppered with industrial terms: greenhouse gases, industry offsets, carbon credits. But one of the most powerful lever to reduce climate change remains largely overlooked: empowering girls through education.

Students leave for home after an early dismissal from school due to the haze in Muar, in Malaysia's southern state of Johor. Air quality in the region had deteriorated to "hazardous" levels as smoke from forest fires obscured the skies. 

Climate Change is Not Gender Neutral

It’s not easy being a rural girl. Across the globe, only 39 percent of rural girls attend secondary school, compared to 45 percent of rural boys. In many regions, female infants are breastfed less than male infants, and as children daughters are given food only after their brothers have eaten. Most rural economies are based around natural resources, and girls are often the backbone of farming families; girls are largely the ones spending hours carrying water, seeking firewood, and caring for family members. As the least empowered members of their communities, they are also the most affected by changes in the natural world.
Without directly considering the gendered impacts of climate change, global leaders will not be able to create the most efficient solutions. Changing weather patterns and increasingly extreme disasters magnify existing inequalities. Already, nearly 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are female. As the leaders of the G7 nations—the United States, Canada, France, Italy, the UK, Germany, and Japan— meet this week in Charlevoix, Canada to discuss tackling climate change, they must remember that the ones with the most at stake are often the best positioned to develop solutions.

Most at Stake, Most to Gain

Floods, wildfires, and droughts are decimating communities across the globe. Already, rural girls are disproportionally killed or displaced by natural disasters, and climate change is expected to intensify weather patterns. Natural disasters lower women’s life expectancy more than men’s, and in some disasters women and girls have made up more than 90 percent of those killed. Girls are rarely taught to swim, while boys are often taught how to do so from a young age.
Additionally, during long-term weather events, such as drought, girls often bear the impact of negative coping strategies. Early marriage rates increase during times of environmental crisis, and girls are often the first to be withdrawn from school when family resources dwindle. These decisions will permanently reduce her decision-making power and can have disastrous impacts on her health—pregnancy remains the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 globally.
Women and girls are not simply victims however. They are key actors who have vital knowledge of their community and environment. If girls do not have the ability to participate in decision making, access resources and opportunities that they need, or learn practical skills, half of the population will be unable to contribute adequately to climate change adaptation.


High Achievers

Educating girls is one of the most impactful climate change solutions because it increases humanity’s capacity for innovation. Being on the front lines of climate change, girls have the experience and the opportunity to best identify solutions—but first they must be empowered with education and a voice in their communities. Only by supporting the human rights of rural girls will the global community benefit from their talents and ambitions.
Educating girls has many impacts that collectively improve climate resilience. Research suggests that there is a strong positive association between the average amount of education girls receive and their country’s resilience to natural disasters. Quality education allows girls to exit poverty, delay marriage, increase agricultural productivity, and--importantly for future carbon reductions--access family planning information. The United Nations projects that by 2050, there will be 9.7 billion people on the earth. Without investments in family planning, especially in low-income countries, this global population will be much higher—as much as a billion more people, producing an extra 119.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide.
As girls and women achieve higher education, they are able to earn more, have fewer children, and improve the health and outcomes of those around them. Over 214 million women in low- and middle-income countries say that they want to decide when they become pregnant, but lack access to contraception. It is vital, however, that the global community not approach girls’ empowerment solely through a reduced fertility lens; when girls and women have the education and financial resources they need, they will use this agency to decide what family size is best for them.
Girls head to their school on a wooden boat in their flooded village in the Kampar district of Indonesia's Riau province. Indonesia could lose about 2,000 islands by 2030 due to climate change.

She Leads

Investing in girls’ education also creates female leaders. Increasing women’s political status is linked with improved environmental protection. By teaching girls leadership skills, a generation of leaders is cultivated—many of whom use their position of influence to protect the resources we all depend on. Countries with higher ratios of women in legislation are more likely to ratify environmental treaties with other nations, create land protections, and reduce their country’s vulnerability to natural disasters. Efforts to increase women’s political influence cannot wait for girls to grow up; early learning builds the confidence and skills that allow women to lead.
Global leaders seeking to minimize the effects of climate change must not overlook these central actors. As girls across the globe reach higher educational heights, their ideas and capacity will help drive not only innovation in climate resilience but also across sectors and economies. Rapidly changing technologies mean that the private sector will depend even more on an educated workforce. Next week, this blog will unwrap these new sources of economic growth and underline the vital place of rural girls in the future of work.

Read our previous post in the Stakeholder Girls series:

Climate Solutions, Econonic Growth, Global Stability? Rural Girls Hold the Key




The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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