When Climate Change Meets Gender
The degree of impact differs significantly with marginalized and vulnerable communities.
The 2017 Global Environment Facility (GEF) policy on ‘Gender Equality’ states that “men and women use natural resources differently and, as a result, they are affected differently by changes (affecting) to these resources. Gender inequality and social inclusion increase the negative impacts of environmental degradation on women and girls.”
This is not an over-exaggeration. Though climate change is a global phenomenon that affects the natural systems, and consequently human well-being, the degree of the impacts differs significantly with marginalized and vulnerable communities.
Women are vulnerable to climate change. They tend to rely more on natural resources for their livelihoods. They need to secure water, food, and fuel for cooking and heating. They also struggle with unequal access to resources and decision-making processes, limited mobility and access to information, and the threat of sexual violence. Climate change only adds to this existing burden. Poor and marginalized women and girls are seldom given the chance to better understand the risks that they face and to prepare, respond and recover from environmental risks.
Gender equality is not a “women’s issue.” Men are also vulnerable to climate change but often affected in different ways. For example, data from India and Australia show higher rates of suicides among male farmers during times of drought.
Understanding the norms
Why are women and men often affected differently by climate change? Due to existing social and cultural gender norms, roles, and expectations, the position and condition of women and men are different in each society. Climate change impacts women and girls differently due to socio-economic class and other intersectional demographic characteristics such as age and location. Also, women and girls do not form a homogeneous group defined by their gender alone.
“Women are disproportionately affected by climate change impacts such as droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events. They also have a critical role in combating climate change but need to be better represented at all levels in the decision-making process. Empowering women will be a significant factor in meeting the climate challenge.” — Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC Former Executive Secretary (2014)
Taking gender considerations into account is key for effective action on climate change.
Gender dimensions of climate change
Climate change has increased the frequency of disasters due to floods and other extreme events, affecting particularly populations that are economically and socially marginalized. Within these groups, women, and children, particularly girls, are often the most marginalized, due to socially constructed roles, lack of access to basic knowledge, information, amenities, transportation means, and rights.
Men’s livelihoods can be more visible than women’s, particularly where women engage more in the informal sector and in lower-skilled occupations, earning less than men. After disasters, compensation schemes and support tend to focus on men’s needs. For example, after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, assistance was available to men to replace fishing boats. However, support to help replace women’s fish processing and marketing tools was limited. Lack of resources slows down women’s ability to recover from natural disasters. This also has an indirect impact on the fishermen as it can affect their ability to sell their catch.
Post-traumatic stress increases after natural disasters, especially when families are displaced and have to live in temporary housing in overcrowded conditions with no privacy, lack of future prospects, and limited livelihoods. This often leads to domestic violence, to which women are most vulnerable.
Climate change is increasingly causing people to migrate from their communities to find better social and economic opportunities. Because of existing social norms that dictate the roles and responsibilities suitable for women and men, they tend to react to climate change pressures differently. In many societies, men have more mobility due to social norms that deem it acceptable for a man to migrate, and also due to material facilities such as cars, money, and personal networks.
Men are more likely to migrate to areas unaffected by climate change in search of employment, whereas women have fewer opportunities to migrate and are more likely to stay in the affected area to care for the family and the household. Women are generally forced to migrate in cases where they are single mothers and sole providers for their families. However, if their husband migrates, women’s responsibilities in and out of the household increase since they must carry out additional activities handled by men. This situation can result in social stigma directed towards women and their children, who are left without a guardian and protector.
Forty percent of the world’s population, particularly in rural households in developing countries, depends on traditional forms of energy such as biomass (wood, animal dung, or crop waste). Additionally, nearly half of the world’s household meals are cooked over open fires, using inefficient and polluting biomass sources. These practices contribute to climate change due to the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) and accelerated deforestation.
In many parts of the world, not only do women spend time collecting biomass fuel, they also prepare meals using them as energy sources, causing significant indoor air pollution. On average, women spend about 94 minutes each day cooking, whereas men spend seven. Taking care of these basic needs has a major impact on women’s health. Every year, household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels accounts for the premature death of more than four million people due to related illnesses. Men are also involved in the collection of fuelwood and the preparation of meals. Typically, they do not spend the same amount of time involved in these tasks compared to women, which minimizes their exposure to toxic fumes and soot.
Food security, nutrition, and water resources
Climate change is expected to cause more frequent and severe food shortages. This can lead to reduced household income, increased household burden for women, and compromised nutritional balance. Also, rising food prices often affect the poorest community members, who are usually women.
In most developing countries, women and girls are generally responsible for water collection for domestic use. As climate change can impact the availability and quality of water supplies, women and girls must find alternative water sources that are often farther away or of poorer quality.
Climate change impacts human health in various ways and can affect men and women differently, depending on the context. Health includes a range of conditions such as physical ailments, diseases, and mental and maternal health.
The increase in disease rates of HIV/AIDS, hantavirus, hepatitis C, SARS, etc. due to climate change contributes to the domestic burden of women, who are often the primary caregivers for sick families. Women are also vulnerable to maternal/infant health issues that are exacerbated by climate change impacts
Men can also experience health vulnerabilities. After Hurricane Katrina, the proportion of predominantly male firefighters, first responders, and construction workers with skin rashes was very high due to exposure to dirty floodwaters.
Besides all the panel discussions, technical jargon, and beyond any high-level negotiations reality on the ground related to gender-based impacts of climate change is distressing. While initiatives are on a way forward in finding a sustainable solution pertaining to this issue, actions have to be accelerated. Further, it is pivotal to make sure their voices are heard on global, national, and regional levels while implementing recommendations that seek to enhance the efficacy of climate change policies and programs by introducing gender-sensitive reforms to the current agenda.
- WB, FAO, IFAD. 2015. Gender in Climate-Smart Agriculture.
- CAPRi. 2012. A Literature Review of the Gender Differentiated Impacts of Climate Change on Women’s and Men’s Assets and Well-being in Developing Countries.
- UNDP. 2016. Learning from the Canada-UNDP Climate Change Adaptation Facility
- Women Gender Constituency. 2016. Gender Just Climate Solutions.
- GEF (2018): Guidance to Advance Gender Equality in GEF projects and programs.
- GEF. 2017. Policy on Gender Equality.
- UN Environment. 2016. Global Gender and Environment Outlook.