The climate crisis is not gender neutral – women’s voices must be heard

This blog highlights the gendered impacts of climate change on women in developing nations. Women face higher risks and burdens from climate change due to several factors. These include limited participation in decision-making, unequal access to resources, and gender-based cultural norms. These gendered impacts lead to socioeconomic, health, and behavioral issues for women. Climate change also increases their unpaid labor, emotional stress, and social problems, such as child marriages. Limited access to education and resources, in turn, hinders women’s entrepreneurship and limits their resilience-building capacity. This blog uncovers many women’s voices and brings back the focus on women’s involvement in community-level planning for effective climate change adaptation.

Source: (Randall, n.d.)

Women who grapple with poverty commonly face higher risks and more significants burdens from climate change’s impact. Climate change has multifaceted effects on women’s lives, which range from socioeconomic, cultural, behavioral, and health issues. Women’s unequal participation in decision-making processes and labor markets often prevents them from fully contributing to climate-related planning, policymaking, and implementation. The limited availability of gender-segregated data restricts in-depth assessments of climate change’s gender dimension.

With the increased data availability, a clear correlation arises between gender inequality and vulnerability to climate change. As per Tshakert et al. (2019), social and cultural factors help identify and anticipate future risks. Gender inequality leads to more biophysical and social vulnerability and lesser adaptive capacity in women than men (UNEP, 2023). Furthermore, the stakes go beyond the boundaries of economics or health when climate change is researched from a gender perspective.

We need to understand the gendered impacts of climate change to create a holistic understanding of its threats and measures to mitigate it.

This framework (Figure 1) is adapted from Yiridomoh Y. Gordon et al. (2019)—a study conducted on small-scale women farmers in Ghana to understand the adaptation to climate change and its derivatives. It observed that female farmers’ vulnerability to climate variability is rooted in gender-based cultural norms, household responsibilities, inaccessibility to assets and resources, and lack of information and suitable technology.

Figure 1: Conceptual framework that links women, climate variability, and adaptation

Source: Yiridomoh Y. Gordon et al. (2019)

Climate change’s gender impact also leads to other social implications for women:

  • Increase in women’s unpaid labor: Women face emotional stress and increased unpaid household work due to climate change, revealed an MSC study conducted on climate resilience among smallholder farmers in India. One respondent in the study noted, “Floods make the fuelwood and biomass soggy. It increases the cooking time substantially.” (MSC, 2023). Another often-cited case study comes from the “water wives of Maharashtra” of Denganmal village, 185 km from India’s financial capital, Mumbai (Blakemore, 2015). The village faces continuous droughts in summer and lacks water pipelines. The men of the village, who are predominantly farmers, marry more women to take care of the family’s water requirements. These women are typically from families that cannot afford a dowry[1] or widows who seek to regain their social status.
  • The increased toll of disasters: Girls in Bangladesh reported a rise in household work after a flood. They had to walk long distances to fetch water, clean their houses after a flood, and take leave from school to look after their homes. After disasters, families often employ girls in domestic service, agriculture, and textile factories, while boys mostly remain in school.

For instance, after Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh in 2007, people reported that many girls moved to urban areas to work in garment factories or engage in domestic work. Jhumu is an 18-year-old girl from Barguna, Bangladesh. She said, “Girls also work as domestic help with rich local families. Their families find it easier to stop their education—which is not the same with boys. Families want to continue their education.” (Swarup et al., 2011).

  • Increase in child marriages and subsequent violence: Research has established that climate change and other environmental crises multiply the drivers of child marriages, such as poverty, displacement, conflict, and loss of education. This subsequently puts young girls at grave risk of domestic and sexual violence, which hurts their physical and mental health. Studies (UNICEF, 2017; Barnfonden, 2021) have also shown links between droughts, floods, and increased child marriages.

Women’s voices need an audience and action.

Atela et al. (2018) argue that low education levels and structural exclusion from land, capital, markets, and new technologies limit women entrepreneurs in Kenya’s semi-arid lands (SALs) to limited livelihood activities and expose them to climate risks. These factors also determine how well women can build resilience and hinder their agency in decision-making. The underrepresentation of women hinders climate-responsive planning, policymaking, and implementation. Women entrepreneurs’ voices, aspirations, and capabilities must find clear articulation in public policy, legislative, and investment domains.

Research has shown that women entrepreneurs know livelihood needs, assets, opportunities, and stressors, which enable them to design and operate MSMEs that respond to households’ livelihood and adaptation needs (Horrell & Krishnan, 2007). Female-led MSMEs remain underutilized at the societal level in developing adaptation and resilience strategies.

As per the available data (FAO, 2011; UNFCCC, 2023), “if rural women had equal access to agricultural resources as men, yields could increase by 20–30%, and the overall number of hungry people worldwide could be reduced by 12-17%.” Women are also the first responders to any climate change disaster, especially with their increased role as caregivers at household-level behavioral changes and planning. They contribute to recovery after a climate change event as they meet the early recovery needs of their families and strengthen community building. However, we should not place the entire responsibility of responding to climate change on women, the “feminization of responsibility,” as also discussed by Wright, G. (2023).

In this respect, we can mitigate or adapt to climate change impacts through women’s involvement in community-level planning. We can build stronger, more resilient communities that are better equipped to face climate change’s challenges. Women’s empowerment may lead to better climate solutions. Policymakers and development practitioners must engage both male and female farmers to confront climate vulnerability and enhance their capacity to cope with climatic stresses for any farm-level adaptation.

[1] A dowry is a custom practiced in South Asia where a gift of substantial monetary value is given from the bride’s family to the groom upon marriage. The practice is prohibited in India as per the  Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, yet continues to be practiced widely.

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