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How climate change is disproportionately affecting girls in low-income countries

More extreme weather is taking girls out of school, forcing them into earlier marriages and increasing their exposure to violence

A girl walks home from school after waiting for low tide when the road is visible in Satkhira, Bangladesh, last month. (Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP)

GLASGOW — As Malawi’s minister of education landed in Scotland for COP26, a storm pummeled several villages in her country — and damaged numerous schools she couldn’t afford to lose.

“That was destroying schools where, as minister of education, I’m struggling to provide quality education that protects girls and gives them a chance to become leaders of today and tomorrow,” Agnes Nyalonje said.

In Malawi, only 16 out of 100 children enroll in secondary school, with girls as a small proportion. Even at those enrollment rates, they are still short of 30,000 classrooms and are struggling to build more infrastructure.

“When the schools got destroyed, I’m sitting there thinking now I’m going to this climate change conference, I am going to talk about how to protect girls,” said Nyalonje, who spoke on Friday’s COP26 panel about education and gender equality. “Climate change events such as this storm that hit Malawi on Monday sets me back every time it happens.”

Across the world, many types of extreme weather are becoming more frequent and intense. In low- to lower-middle-income countries, these events are disproportionately affecting girls and young women. Often, they must drop out of school after infrastructure is damaged or skip school to help recoup losses at their homes or fields that were affected.

“We cannot hope to build resilience for the decades ahead unless we educate all children. This especially is true for girls,” said Nobel Peace Prize laureate and education activist Malala Yousafzai, via video conference at the panel. “Education prepares women to develop climate solutions, secure green jobs and address issues at the heart of this crisis.”

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In 2021 alone, the Malala Fund estimated, climate-related events will prevent at least 4 million girls in lower-income countries from finishing their education. By 2025, climate change could keep more than 12 million girls from completing their education every year.

Climate change is known as a “threat multiplier” and worsens societal problems, from international security to housing crises. For girls and women, climate change exacerbates gender inequalities embedded in their social and economic life.

For example, drought can affect water quantity and quality. If water is contaminated or lacking, women and girls often need to walk long distances to find suitable water; estimates show they spend about 200 million hours each day collecting water. When water is inaccessible, they cannot practice proper menstrual hygiene and miss class until their period is over.

If extreme weather damages crops, girls may skip school to spend more time in the field to make up for losses. If a community is struggling to raise money, girls are taken out of school to save money for food or are even married off to older men and never return to school.

Intense flooding, especially during monsoon season, can damage or close schools. Girls tend to have less access to distance learning than boys. They are also less likely to attend temporary schools in fear of getting harassed or experiencing violence.

Research shows that girls are also less likely to return to school after disruptions to their education. UNESCO estimates that about 11 million girls may not return to school once the coronavirus pandemic ends.

“Climate change is affecting our lives in many ways. It threatens the ability to make our dreams come true,” Beaullah Chihosana, a researcher at Plan International Zimbabwe, said via video conference at the panel.

There are potential solutions on local levels, such as changing school calendars as climate change shifts the timing of seasons and establishing satellite schools with more attention to girls’ needs.

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Some initiatives are also improving access to education on larger scales. Through an International Development Fund and Climate Justice Fund, Scotland works to provide support for girls in Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda and Pakistan. They offer funding to girls from primary to tertiary school in Pakistan, as well as scholarships to girls in Zambia for a university in Scotland.

“It should be possibly the biggest priority in the world to make sure that every girl has equal access to education because we won’t solve the problems that the world has until we properly and fully empower girls and women,” said Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland. “It’s not possible to exaggerate the importance of this as an objective.”

Yet focus on this issue is still left out of formal declarations and negotiations at COP26. No nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which lay out a nation’s efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change, discuss investments in girls’ education and its impact on a nation’s climate strategies. Less than 10 NDCs even mention education.

Youth leaders are attempting to change the status quo at the conference — with efforts like the panel on Friday. On Saturday, more than 100,000 demonstrators marched the streets of Glasgow to demand action on several climate-related issues.

“To the young women leading the climate movement, I want to say thank you for using your voice and giving your time and expertise to this fight,” Yousafzai said. “To the leaders at COP26, you have the opportunity to help future generations, the young people who will experience the worst effect of climate change. This is the future that you owe to children everywhere around the world.”

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

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