Redesigning the school year around changing seasons and “satellite” classrooms are among a series of measures young women from Zambia and Zimbabwe are calling for to tackle the climate emergency.
New research, led by girls and young women, being launched by Plan International at COP26 paints a picture of the urgent measures needed to both adapt to changing climates and prevent global warming levels from breaching 1.5C.
The report – Adolescent Girls in the Climate Crisis: Voices from Zambia and Zimbabwe – is co-authored by 16 women aged 20-28 from rural communities where climate shocks are already resulting in more girls dropping out of school and being forced into child marriage.
Economic burdens lead to exploitation
In communities reliant on agriculture, flooding, shifting rainfall patterns and recurring drought have made livelihoods and access to food more precarious. Owing to this increased stress, families are more likely to marry girls to older men, or girls may be forced into sexual exploitation in order to alleviate the economic burden.
Interviews also found that when parents can only afford to pay school fees for some of their children, priority is often given to boys. At the same time, climate change is also making it more challenging for girls to access school because flooding, for example, often destroys roads and bridges, isolating more rural communities.
In the words of one young woman from Zimbabwe: “There are drastic swings in the weather patterns in Chiredzi, within a single farming season, we are experiencing both excessive rainfall and a dry spell, low lying areas experience floods whilst high altitude areas experience strong winds, this puts a lot of pressure on communities.”
Girls and young women also say extreme weather places them at greater risk of sexual violence, as drought, for example, means they are forced to fetch water from distances further away from their homes, while flooding can force them to seek shelter in unsafe places.
Another research participant from Zambia said: “As girls, when the rains destroy our houses, our parents seek shelter on our behalf in the neighbourhood. While there, we are taken advantage of by boys and men living in that house where we will be sheltered.”
Climate change leads to gender injustice
Jessica Cooke, climate change advisor at Plan International said: “Climate change is one of the greatest global intergenerational, gender and social injustices of our time.
“Discriminatory social and gender norms mean that girls and women, in all their diversity, are too often the hardest hit by climate change and have the fewest resources to cope. Failing to keep global warming below 1.5C will only see more climate impacts and roll back progress towards equality and justice.
“COP26 is a critical moment to advocate for girls’ rights. Our research – carried out and written by girls and young women– shows that while adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis, they are also creating adaptation solutions. They are often leading climate action in their communities and must be included in climate decisions.
“This is why it has never been so important to amplify their voices regarding their needs and the climate change impacts they are experiencing, as well as the solutions and recommendations they are demanding.”
Climate change hinders girls' education
According to the Malala Fund, there are 4 million girls in low and lower-middle income countries who won’t finish school in 2021 because of climate-related events.
The 16 young women researchers have now developed a series of detailed recommendations for policymakers, including building more schools closer to communities that are prone to floods, changing the school calendar so that it fits into the shifting seasons and establishing satellite schools to allow girls to continue their studies.
They are also asking governments to ensure school curriculums cover climate change, including contextualised information and how local communities can develop mitigation and adaptation strategies.
Ahead of and at COP26, Plan International is calling for leaders to raise ambitions on emissions reductions, and increase climate finance to at least the committed $100billion per year.
The child rights and humanitarian organisation is also calling for young people, particularly girls and young women, to be meaningfully engaged in the development and implementation of climate policy processes.