Source: Women's Media Center

One terrible morning, after battling a relentless onslaught of ocean waves for years, Modupe Akerele’s waterfront home finally crumbled in submission to the sea. She was lucky to make it out alive. Once a proud homeowner, Akerele, 47, now resides as a tenant in one of the makeshift shanties that dot the landscape of Elegushi — a community in Nigeria’s southwest city of Lagos that is perched on the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean.

“I am totally exhausted,” a visibly deflated Akerele told the Women’s Media Center. “I am really depressed.”

But Akerele’s story is just one out of many. Buried inside the yawning sea are countless wrecked dreams. For women like Akerele and Nojime Dupe, 56, a resident of Okun Alfa, also in Lagos, who lost her livelihood to the persistent ocean surge, the changing climate has not merely altered the landscape, it has reshaped their lives for the worse.

Elegushi and Okun Alfa are among several beachfront neighborhoods in the city that were once sought-after destinations for tourists but have seen their charm wane over recent decades. The ravages of climate change, manifested in powerful ocean storms, continue to erode the shoreline, tearing apart livelihoods and swallowing seashore buildings.

As government delegates and African climate campaigners gather at the African Climate Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, from September 4-6, it is vital they consider how the life-transforming losses faced by women at the frontline of the climate crisis can be effectively addressed.

This groundbreaking summit is set under an audacious theme: “Driving Green Growth and Climate Finance Solutions for Africa and the World.” Ahead of the Climate Conference in Dubai in December (COP28) and a global stocktake, the Nairobi Summit could offer a chance for African nations to unite with an articulate and powerful voice that speaks for its most vulnerable, especially its women.

“Africa Climate Week signifies a pivotal moment to reshape COP28’s agenda,” said Shashwat Saraf, the International Rescue Committee’s East Africa emergency director. “It’s only fitting that these discussions commence in Africa, where climate-vulnerable nations have been left behind.”

A Multiplied Burden of Existence

report published by Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa, a pan-African human rights organization, documents the impacts of climate shocks on frontline communities in Nigeria, South Africa, Togo, and Cameroon. Women in these countries bear the brunt of climate change but are often left out in decision-making processes to address the crisis.

In Okun Alfa, Dupe recounted how the rising sea level and encroaching sand dunes have consumed businesses, including her small general store, as well as the only school in the community. Consequently, schoolchildren now have to walk long distances to schools far from home.

In Kakou and Ouro, two fishing communities in northern Cameroon, climate change-induced droughts have equally disrupted food security, particularly the fishing sector — a primary source of food and income for local women. This unfortunate situation has left many women in the community grappling with diminished economic prospects.

Across Africa, the effects of climate change intersect with entrenched societal norms and pre-existing power dynamics, magnifying gender inequalities and vulnerabilities in roles, resource access, rights, responsibilities and earning power. For instance, parched farming lands and water holes exacerbate the burden of housekeeping for many women on the continent who are primarily responsible for household chores. They are also dependent on threatened land resources for food and fuels such as firewood and charcoal.

According to Sefa Ikpa, a social justice campaigner and development advocate based in Lagos, “Any solution addressing the climate catastrophe in Africa must acknowledge and cater to the unique experiences of women on the continent.” Ikpa plans to attend the Africa Climate Summit next week in Nairobi to make a case for women on the frontline of the climate crisis.

“Only with such an inclusive, context-aware, and just approach can Africa hope to turn the tide on an escalating climate crisis,” she said.

Shut Out

While Africa needs substantial climate financing to combat climate disturbances, and countries have called consistently for dedicated and responsive funding, the specific needs of its women and girls are often overlooked or underrepresented in decision-making processes to build climate resilience.

“The nationally determined contributions (NDCs) of many African countries insufficiently address the compounded hardships women endure due to climate change,” Aderonke Ige, a social justice advocate, told WMC. “These range from exacerbated strains on their physical health as they grapple with environmental shocks to heightened sexual abuses and vulnerabilities to resource-based conflicts when forced to migrate for survival and sustenance.” Through Ige’s work, she has uncovered several ways African nations are letting down women at the receiving end of the climate crisis.

“Topics like mental health, sexual and reproductive rights, and the need for psychosocial support for affected women are not buttressed enough in African NDCs,” she said.

To begin to correct this, African climate campaigners are intensifying efforts to bring these issues to the front burner of global climate conversations. In a few months’ time, delegates from all over the world will pour into Dubai for COP28. But before then, the Nairobi summit can offer a useful staging point for the conversations to kick off.

“At COP27, the decision to establish a loss and damage funding mechanism to compensate vulnerable populations in the Global South after many years of jaw-jaw showed what can be achieved through serious campaigning work and unity,” Ikpa said. “We must leverage this progress to push the boundaries for women at upcoming conversations.”

This will require African leaders to utilize the opportunity of the Nairobi summit to prioritize the concerns of women in the face of climate change beyond discussions around broad policies and macro solutions. The nuances, local tales, and gendered experiences of women like Akerele must not fade into the background.

“This means demanding a climate support package that offers infrastructure resilience, effective education, and economic diversification to African women in vulnerable locations,” Ikpa said.

It also means enlisting women in the battle against climate change and the race towards a greener economy. Africa with its abundant and rich mineral resources has a huge role to play in this. Unfortunately, African women at the forefront of the climate crisis are oftentimes viewed primarily as victims — whereas they can also become active change agents in the processes and efforts to end climate change, reduce fossil fuel emissions, and ensure climate justice.

“To achieve this, women must be at the table,” Ikpa stressed. “The prevailing situation where policymakers make decisions without consulting those at the frontlines has to end."

“Also, efforts to exploit Africa’s natural resources to lead the green race must be equitable, ensuring that women and vulnerable groups benefit from the gains,” she added. “In short, we must ensure that the ruthless and profit-driven economic models that hallmarked fossil exploration are not brought forward into the green future that is envisaged.”

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