THIS was once a familiar sound in Uganda’s Kotido district – a sign from the Elele bird.
“His happy way of saying, ‘I bring you good news, the rain is coming’!” Martina Longom, a farmer and mother in Kotido, laughingly says.
But her exuberant smile quickly fades as she explains how the birds have disappeared.
“They don’t come anymore,” she says, a faraway look in her eyes. “I have seen for myself that things have changed.”
Almost the entire northern Uganda has become barren from extreme drought. A lack of rain has meant fewer trees, less fruit and increasingly disappointing crops. Each day Martina must walk farther from her village to collect food and firewood.
The drought has also caused the nearby Kidepo River to dry up. There is a deep gorge in the land where a stream used to flow. Now, Martina must dig through hard rock to collect murky drinking water.
When the rains do come, they can be violent and sometimes destroy crops.
“I regret having to raise my children at a time like this,” says Martina. “What can I do for them? What can I give them?”
Martina is not alone in her struggle against climate change. Women across Africa and in developing countries, those least responsible for climate change, are the most burdened by its impact.
When most of us think about climate change, we think of the environment – rising sea levels, increased floods and higher temperatures.
But climate change is about more than just the environment. It’s also about women’s rights: The right to raise their families and feed their children.
An estimated 70 per cent of those living below the poverty line are women, many of whom make up the majority of the world’s small-scale farmers.
Women who have not gone to school and are unable to earn an income are spending more time walking for food, firewood and water because of drought. As a result, they are more vulnerable, walking further from the protection of their villages.
They are also at a greater risk of violence due to armed conflict, caused in part by a scarcity of arable land.
For the last two decades in northern Uganda, persistent community conflicts over fertile and cultivable land have caused thousands of deaths.
Martina’s fate and that of women in developing nations depends on the decisions made by world leaders from 192 countries who are now meeting in Copenhagen at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
The climate agreement reached in Copenhagen will replace the Kyoto Protocol, which set legally binding greenhouse gas emission targets for 38 industrialized nations, including Canada.
Like many other rich countries, Canada has signaled it will refuse to sign a new agreement unless developing nations commit to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
This is a reasonable demand only if rich governments are willing to make financial commitments that will assist poor countries achieve a low-carbon development path and adapt to the devastating impacts of climate change.
It is estimated that financing for adaptation in developing countries, which includes building dikes against floodwater and developing new forms of food preservation, will cost $100 billion a year.
We have seen that women in developing countries are being hit the hardest by this disaster.
Therefore, it is also reasonable to expect that at Copenhagen leaders from developed and developing countries alike will ensure that women’s participation is central to these efforts by taking a gender-conscious approach to adaptation.
That approach means ensuring that these strategies meet women’s needs. It means empowering women in developing countries and providing them with a platform to ensure that the voices of women like Martina are heard.
Giving them the opportunity to participate in climate change discussions is crucial, as they are in an ideal position to share their knowledge of the environment and sustainable development.
But in order to meaningfully participate, women and women’s organizations in developing countries need to be given money that will ensure they can participate at all levels, consequently allowing government and civil society to invest in the capacity of women.
It will empower women like Martina to have a life-changing impact in their communities.
Christine Spetz is a volunteer with Oxfam Canada.