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Climate change as a feminist issue

Climate change has impacted every person on this planet. From an increase in wildfires and floods to a lack of access to other natural resources, this human-made catastrophe has affected everyone. However, some are more disproportionately impacted than others because of the marginalization and oppression of certain communities due to social hierarchies and standards. Specifically, women have been the most affected by climate change, for women make up a majority of the world’s poor population and are therefore more dependent on natural resources. For reference, 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty are women and 40% of the world’s poorest households are headed by women. Additionally, a lack of education and access to leadership positions make it difficult for women to offer ideas in the decision-making process around climate change. Therefore, feminism offers a way to look at how climate change disproportionately impacts women — specifically women of color —and how we can empower women to become agents of change. 

In a patriarchal society — a social system in which men hold the power — gender roles play a huge part in how our world functions. Gender roles — a role determined by cultural norms that apply to a specific gender — create inequalities as individuals are expected to act a certain way to be accepted by society. On a global scale, women often provide the role of caretaker for families and communities. In some developing countries, women cannot find the time to maintain an education, if they have access to it, due to the expectations of gender roles, especially during climate catastrophes. Also, women who are racial minorities are the most impacted by climate injustice, for marginalized communities face social stigmas and inequalities that limit access to equal rights. The addition of climate change only delays the fight for equality and puts marginalized groups in a more vulnerable situation. This is why intersectionality is critical to understanding systems of oppression — a term coined by feminist and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw that analyzes how different aspects of identity intertwine and intersect to determine an individual’s experience in the world. By using this tool, we can draw attention to the root of the problem: the variety of social inequalities in society that directly impact people’s access to fundamental human rights. 

While climate change is an issue created by humans, gender equality is dramatically suffering from this worldwide environmental issue. Especially in developing countries, which also tend to be minimal contributors to the issue of climate change, environmental crises impact these communities the most. In places where access to natural resources is already minimal, climate disasters have a cataclysmic impact.

A specific, current example of how the climate crisis disproportionately impacts women is shown through the catastrophic flooding taking place in Pakistan. On Aug. 27, the banks of the Kabul River burst due to the monsoons in Pakistan, causing nearby cities to be overwhelmingly affected by flooding. In Nowshera, displaced families and individuals reside on the sides of roads in tents and shelters in colleges, universities and student hostels. In her article, Diaa Hadid details how many women were abandoned by their husbands during this climate crisis and are attempting to take care of and provide for their families. In this conservative area in Pakistan, it is rare to see women in public because it is frowned upon by the culture. This social norm has made it increasingly difficult for women to have their needs met after being displaced from their homes. Many mothers are struggling to receive food for themselves and their children because it is a common occurrence for men to take food from women. Additionally, minimal access to the bathroom has put mothers and families in uncomfortable situations where they are unable to use the restroom for extended amounts of time. Women are also suffering from a major lack of period products. In a conservative area where many women already lack fundamental human rights, climate catastrophes like this put women in even more vulnerable situations where their basic needs are unable to be met. Especially in an area with very low greenhouse gas emissions, many women are unaware of the issue of climate change. Now more than ever, we need a feminist solution that empowers women’s education and equal access in order to promote gender equality while simultaneously combating climate change. 

By looking at climate change through an intersectional lens, we can dissect why this issue disproportionately impacts marginalized communities in order to create specific solutions. A majority of women lack agency in decision-making around the issues that impact them the most, one of the most prevalent being climate change. Women experience unique vulnerabilities from climate change and therefore can offer specific solutions to the issues that impact them the most. It is essential that more women’s voices are integrated into the decision-making process around solutions to combat climate change. Especially since women leaders put more of an emphasis on making change rather than being in charge, this commitment to justice and equality can make a huge difference in combating both climate change and gender injustice. Additionally, a strong emphasis on the community will allow for momentum to build in creating specific solutions for a multiplicity of issues. Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, a writer and climate activist, describes a specific approach to combating climate change. “Core approaches to climate leadership: things like compassion, connection, creativity, collaboration, care, a commitment to justice, all of that is open to people of any gender.” Promoting the inclusion of women in leadership positions will allow for more collaboration and more targeted solutions that combat climate change while addressing the drastic impact the environment has had on marginalized communities. As Ireland’s first female president said, “Climate change is a man-made problem — with a feminist solution!”

It is essential that we begin to integrate intersectionality into decision-making in order to accurately analyze how and why certain communities are being impacted more than others on a global scale. The inclusion of marginalized voices into the decision-making process around climate change is essential in creating meaningful, impactful and multidimensional solutions that evoke change in specific areas.

Grace Sullivan is a freshman at Notre Dame studying Global Affairs with a minor in Gender Studies. In her column I.M.P.A.C.T. (Intersectionality Makes Political Activist Change Transpire), she analyzes global social justice issues with an intersectional feminist lens. Outside of The Observer, she enjoys hiking, painting, and being a plant mom. She can be reached at gsulli22@nd.edu.

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We need to start using people-first language. Here’s why. 

As a new anthropology major, I am eager to explore the various subcategories of discipline, including, but not limited to the sociocultural and linguistic aspects of study. And in this, the first week (or so) of classes, my mind has already been opened to the power behind the language used within the area of study consequences that go beyond the classroom.

Academia has historically led the way in terms of linguistic and cultural shifts. A more recent and hotly-debated emergence is, of course, the creation of Critical Theory in sociology, expansion to Critical Race Theory (CRT) in legal studies in law schools across the country, and its (more controversial) recent adaptation and adoption in elementary, middle and high schools. 

While I recognize that imposing standard habits of the practice onto any external group may be met with opposition, I think the case can be made that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages in changing one particular linguistic norm: identity-first language. 

In the realm of discussing disability, we have in the past labeled people with their disability first. “Blind people.” “Austistic person.” “Disabled person.”  It had even been common practice to omit the term “person” or “people” altogether in favor of using the disability identifier as a noun (i.e. “a paraplegic”). Identity-first language can have the effect of limiting a person’s sense of self to their diagnosis, and that is why it is becoming more and more commonplace to favor people-first language (i.e. a person with a disability). It is important to note here, too, that people-first language does not aim to cast aspersions or pass judgements on things like disability by saying “a victim of autism” or “someone afflicted with blindness.” Its goal is to simply acknowledge the differences in an experience-based way.

I was introduced to this issue of identity-first language in a class centering on the anthropological study of obesity. In this, my very surface-level research, I found that a lot of the messaging on even the WHO and CDC websites to be fascinating, including the framing of obesity as a chronic disease instead of what has typically been a framing of a moral deficiency.  I noticed that obesity, as of late, has been framed in relation to the issue of Covid. The CDC site describes obesity and its effects as comorbidities that could lead to a poor prognosis in the event of a Covid diagnosis. This coupling, the conversation of these two conditions in relation to one another, is what I think has partly driven the expansion of our collective understanding of obesity as something that can be a disability as well as something that is more complex than we had initially thought. This, too, is what I think expands people-first language to this condition. 

So when the CDC and WHO use the newer norm of referring to people experiencing obesity as “people with obesity” instead of “obese people,” I strongly feel that this use of people-first language is much more dignifying in addition to being more accurate. People are not solely defined nor identified by any one aspect of their being, especially if that aspect is a diagnosis. People-first language accounts for this, and it is a long overdue linguistic change. It is high time we change our modes of discussion around disability to acknowledge the individual dignity of every person and their lived experience, however varied from ours. It’s worth the extra syllables.

Alexa Schlaerth is a junior at the University of Notre Dame studying anthropology and linguistics. When she’s not slamming hot takes into her laptop keyboard, she can be found schooling her peers in the daily Wordle and NYT mini crossword, rewatching South Park, or planning her next backpacking trip. As an Angeleno, Alexa enjoys drinking overpriced non dairy iced lattes and complaining about traffic because it’s “like, totally lame.” Alexa can be reached on Twitter at @alexa_schlaerth, or via email at aschlaer@nd.edu.