Want to stop climate change? Educate girls

Girls and women are the future leaders in climate action and the world’s frontline defense against climate change.

By Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar — July 14, 2022

A 12-week remote-learning program for young people in Uganda, called AirScience, launched during the pandemic in September 2020. Developed by Erin Fitzgerald and Samzon Wambuzi, the cofounders of Yiya Engineering Solutions, it used radio broadcasts and an offline app that worked on the most basic mobile phones to teach science skills. Within three weeks, it had reached 10,000 users — including thousands of girls in a country where only 30% of them enroll in high school. 

Despite the program’s initial success, there were hurdles. Fitzgerald and Wambuzi, for example, learned to adjust the time AirScience was offered. “In northern Uganda, girls and women do the work at home and in the field,” says Wambuzi. “We had to look through the data and see when students were engaging, what times they could access the radio and phone, and tailor our program.” 

But AirScience’s lessons — such as basic engineering and business skills — produced some surprising results. Village girls without access to electricity and water were soon harnessing the power of the sun to improve their lives, making hand sanitizers, homemade solar panels, and solar food dryers with local materials. One of them, 16-year-old Akello Jemmy, even started a business with the dryer she built. 

The program, which was selected for the 2020 MIT Solve Global Challenge, Learning for Girls and Women, is an example of how education can inspire creative and eco-friendly problem-solving among young people, especially girls, in poor communities with little financial and educational resources. 


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Leading voices at international bodies like UN Women and think tanks like the Brookings Institution have long put forth that educating girls is among the single biggest things communities can do to help thwart the looming threats of climate change. 

“Women and girls are among the most vulnerable groups of society when it comes to climate impacts,” says Christina Kwauk, research director of Unbounded Associates, which specializes in gender and international development, and a former Brookings fellow. “We know from a great body of literature that going to school, learning, and completing school is an important pathway to prosperity, individual well-being, and better outcomes for your family, your community, and your nation.” 

Whether it’s activism in their local communities, such as campaigning against pollution, or creating a new process or product such as solar cells from local materials, the result is the same: Educated girls and women are becoming a frontline defense against climate change, as well as leaders in climate action. 

The link between women and the climate

Research suggests girls’ education, including teaching them about reproductive health and family planning, can directly reduce CO₂ emissions, the main cause of increasing global temperatures. Malala Fund, launched by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, last year described girls’ education as “one of the most powerful yet underused strategies” in the fight against climate change.

Cambodian girls in a rural school

Girl Rising

Studies show that investing in girls’ education can help families and communities cope better with climate-related disasters.

“Education prepares women to develop climate solutions, secure green jobs, and address issues at the heart of this crisis,” said Yousafza at COP26 in November. 

The issue becomes vital because by 2025, Malala Fund estimates climate change itself will be a contributing factor in preventing at least 12.5 million girls from completing their education each year. 

Women suffer the gravest effects of climate-related crises — one UN report found that women make up 80% of those displaced by a climate emergency. The most vulnerable countries are in subSaharan Africa, followed by South Asia. Natural disasters and economic shocks hit resource-poor communities hardest. And women can be disproportionately affected due to gender inequality. Natural disasters, which are expected to increase with climate change, can have disproportionate negative effects on women’s health. Storms and floods can hamper access to reproductive health services, and women and girls are often the first to skip meals after a disaster. Droughts can also disrupt girls’ education in low-income countries as the girls spend more time fetching water or get married early to save their family expenses. The UN reported an increase in girls being sold into marriage after a 2011 drought in Ethiopia. 

Yet investing in girls’ education can help families and communities cope better with disasters. For teens like Jemmy in Uganda, learning to build a solar food dryer helped her make dried vegetables and fruits to sell. This increased her family’s income with technology that didn’t consume more fossil-fuel-based electricity. 

Such improvements in household resources can scale up. According to the University of Notre Dame’s GAIN Index, which measures a country’s vulnerability to climate change, for each additional year of education girls acquire, countries’ resilience to climate disasters increases 3.2 points. Additionally, Project Drawdown, a climate mitigation nonprofit, estimates that educating girls and family planning could limit population growth—which means fewer people to consume energy and food — and result in emission savings of 85 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050. 

“Women are at the center of climate impacts,” says Ndivile Mokoena, project coordinator of Gender CC South Africa, part of a global network of activist organizations called Women for Climate Justice. “Our resilience needs to be built around women.” Focusing on education will not just help women but whole nations, she says.

Creating leaders that think “green”

Research shows a link between women leaders and pro-environment decisions. Studies have shown that companies with greater gender diversity on their boards are less often sued for environmental infringements, that women members of parliament in Europe were more likely to advance environmental protection, and that including women in forest management in India and Nepal can result in better conservation outcomes

Jane Hahn for Malala Fund

The Malala Fund is helping to support the next generation of female students in Nigeria.

Of course, there are many instances of women representatives following the same policies as the men in their party. “It’s not that we only need more female leaders, we also need more feminist leaders,” says Kwauk, adding, “We want boys and girls to have the same risk perception and sustainability mindset.” 

The next generation of female climate leaders will benefit from the trail blazed by others, from Christiana Figueras, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, and Gina McCarthy, the National Climate Change Advisor, to teen activist Greta Thunberg and Nemonte Nenquimo, an Indigenous activist from Ecuador’s Amazon forests and a UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) Champion of the Earth. 

Those are the kinds of leaders that Girl Rising, a nonprofit focused on girl’s empowerment, hopes to help nurture by tapping into storytelling as a tool to promote gender equality and climate awareness. Its fellowship program supports “rock star young people” working at “the intersection of climate change and gender equity,” Girl Rising CEO Christina Lowery says. “We help them develop their voices, gain storytelling skills, and get their important stories heard.” 

“It’s not that we only need more female leaders, we also need more feminist leaders. We want boys and girls to have the same risk perception and sustainability mindset.”

—Christina Kwauk, Research Director of Unbounded Associates

Girls are impacted first and worst by climate change, and yet are also leading the way in ambitious solutions, she explains. “We need to hand over the microphone to these young people and hold them up as powerful role models for the world to see.” 

Julieta Martínez, a 17-year-old in Santiago, Chile, who is on the UN Women Youth Task Force, is one such role model. As a young girl, Martínez became interested in environmental issues after she discovered the existence of Chile’s “sacrifice zones,” areas of industrial pollution that damaged the health and environment of local communities. These sites made her question her own role in the waste cycle, she says. At 14, Martinez founded a global action platform to bring together girls in Latin America on environmental issues. More recently, she cofounded Climáticas, an academy for climate action for girls. She’s now making documentaries on the academy’s first graduates. “I wanted to show the stories of girls who are living in horrible places but still had hope and looked for solutions,” she says. 

Training leads to green skills and green jobs

Education is the first step to cultivating skills, especially in science and technology, that can prepare young people for green jobs. Groups like UK-based Camfed (Campaign for Female Education) and Mokoenka’s Gender CC train rural women in climate-resilient agricultural practices to improve nutrition and livelihoods. (Women comprise more than 40% of the farm labor force overall in developing countries, but only own between 10% and 20% of the land.) Others like ActionAid, an international aid group, focus on disaster-resilience training in Asian schools, teaching children about weather warnings, first aid, and other life-saving skills. 

Yiya Engineering Solutions

Rayhana Nakabubi utilized Yiya AirScience STEM courses when the pandemic closed schools in Uganda for two years, and continues to take classes via an offline learning app.

Meanwhile Yiya’s Fitzgerald says the AirScience program now has more than 50,000 users in its online program, almost half of whom do not attend any other type of school. The goal is to achieve an enrollment that is 60% female and to scale up the program in the coming years with the help of governments across Africa. 

“Our passion is to really make education practical,” she says. However, according to UN Women, only 3% of climate development aid targets women’s rights and gender equality. UN climate treaties mention using education around climate change as an important tool, but few countries have made it part of their action plans. 

Educators say the most important thing is to improve the reach and quality of formal schooling. But given the shortfalls in public education — and the time it takes for governments to act — Lowery and others see a role for the private sector to bridge the gaps, especially through partnerships around climate awareness, disaster resilience, and life and job skills. 

HP-supported initiatives such as HP LIFE, a free online business skills program for entrepreneurs, businesses, and adult learners; the Girl Rising Creative Challenge; and the Girls Save the World program, an HP-sponsored prize that’s part of MIT Solv[ED]’s Youth Innovation Challenge can bring the disparate pieces of the puzzle together. 

“The innovation that happens in the private sector is just so much more rapid, and [we need] to support public institutions to be able to adopt those innovations,” Lowery says. “I think it’s incumbent upon companies to invest real resources to help make that happen.”