How can African women and girls make their voices heard in climate action?

Ilse Kithembe Climate Change, Gender, Research

Women across the continent, especially in rural and coastal areas, are paying a heavy price for the climate emergency, so why are they so often missing from key areas of influence such as climate research and national environment ministries? Ilse Kithembe sets out five ways to tackle Africa’s environmental gender gap, as Oxfam in Senegal launches a new paper on boosting the role of communities in climate action.

Climate campaigners in Senegal, reproduced from the new report: Increasing Civil Society Ownership of National Climate Plans: Lessons drawn from Senegal’s NDC experience (picture: Oxfam)

Imagine it is the year 2030. You and I are seated under what used to be the umbrella tree outside my home. The green canopy is gone, leaving leafless branches and a seemingly drying tree.

I begin to explain how times have changed. How the delayed rains have affected our planting season and how we celebrated when the rains finally came – only for it to turn into a flood and destroy the few crops and animals we had left. “And what about fishing?” you ask. I shake my head at the loss of household income as fish become scarce. I explain to you that we must now walk for miles just to get water from the only well that’s left with clean water, or any water at all.

I show you the girls passing by and how they have been robbed of their dreams. A few of them are now married; they dropped out of school as household income dropped and their parents opted to educate the boys instead. I show you a few girls now working as domestic workers and casual laborers to make ends meet. I complain about the spike in sex tourism that has left a lot of girls’ rights abused. I am appalled at how the changes in climate have affected the women and girls in my community. 

The thing is, I don’t have to imagine this scenario: because that is my everyday experience in 2024 living in the remote village of Lunga Lunga in the coastal town of Kwale, Kenya.

And underlying this scenario lies a big question, constantly ringing in my head: given that women are one of the most vulnerable groups to climate change, why are they so often ignored or excluded in decision making around climate action?

African feminist climate activist, indigenous leaders and young women and girls are fighting to make sure they are not left out of the climate action debate. For example, the feminist COP held a meeting in Abuja last year to discuss feminist approaches to just transitions, and to stress the importance of inclusive, equitable and gender-responsive climate action. Here are five ways African nations can close the gender gap in climate action.

1. Invest in local women climate champions

Across the continent, African women are already leading the conversation and driving activism on the climate emergency. We need to support them and invest in women climate champions at local, and particularly at rural, level. That way we can hear the voices of those with first-hand experiences of battling climate change, especially in rural and coastal areas.

2. Support women’s education and progress in science and technology

Much of climate innovation happens in science and technology, yet women make up only 13% of the global decision makers in the field and, in Africa, there are alarmingly low numbers of women in science and technology. 

In Senegal for example – a coastal country that faces harsh consequences of climate change – women make up only 24.9% of researchers, despite women making up 51% of the population.

A country doing well, but that is often less spoken about, is Tunisia, where 53.9% of scientific researchers are women. As a long-term strategy, African governments must follow Tunisia’s example. They must not only encourage women and girls to pursue careers in science and technology but also encourage them though offering more mentorships, scholarships and outreach programmes. For women who are already in science and technology, policy-makers need to remove the barriers that prevent them from rising through the ranks.

3. Bridge the gender gap in broader education

Eliminating gender gaps in education ensures that women and girls have the knowledge they need to participate in the debate around climate change and can act. For example, a recent study by Oxfam in Senegal shows that in parts of the country,  traditional and religious beliefs heavily influence people’s view of what causes climate disasters – with a lack of awareness of the effects of human activity on the climate.

Inaccurate perceptions can only be countered by boosting education for women and girls, as well as accompanied by giving them roles in the grassroot level.

4. Remove barriers to inclusion in decision-making bodies.

As it is, Africa is already struggling to meet the gender equality thresholds in parliaments, even with the introduction of affirmative action such as gender quotas and gender parity laws. This already puts women on the sidelines of political power in democratic governments.

Given that only 12% of federal environment ministries globally are headed by women, and women make up just 4%  of the chairs and 18% of the secretaries on the World Energy Council, it is clear we need a transformation in who takes pivotal environmental roles if we are to see truly inclusive climate responses.

The lack of representation goes all the way down to local level. The new paper from Oxfam in Senegal shows how men tend to occupy senior roles in community-based organisations, depriving women of the chance to influence change on their doorstep. The study also shows how women are under-represented in climate governance structures at national level.

5. More women making decisions in the private sector

The private sector has heavy responsibility for the pollution and carbon that drives the climate crisis but could also lead change, focus on sustainable business and play its part in solutions. Women should be equally involved in decision making about sustainability and about the future of businesses. Such inclusion of women in sustainable business decision making will require inclusive working environments, equal pay, and eco-friendly practices.

The bleak reality today for women and girls in communities such as Lunga Lunga shows just how urgent it is we get inclusive and gender-responsive climate action that addresses the disproportionate impact of climate change on women, particularly in rural and coastal areas.

Whether its investing in women climate champions at local and rural levels, financing the education of women in science and technology, or removing barriers to women in parliaments, environment ministries, and climate change committees, we need every African government to start thinking seriously about urgent action on including women in their climate response.


Ilse Kithembe

Ilse Kithembe is a women and girls rights activist for the "Women Human Rights Defenders' programme, run by Amnesty International Netherlands and Human Rights Agenda. She has just completed her Master's in Human Rights and Democratization in Africa from the Center for Human Rights University of Pretoria, South Africa, and the University of Gaston Berger, Senegal. She also serves as the policy and advocacy officer at G for Girls Initiative, a community-based organization in Kwale Kenya which she co-founded in 2022. Ilse has also worked with Oxfam in Senegal, as part of the influencing team.

Read the new Oxfam in Senegal research report: Increasing Civil Society Ownership of National Climate Plans: Lessons drawn from Senegal’s NDC experience

Oxfam has also recently published a second paper around climate change in Senegal: The perception of climate change in Senegal coastal areas