Climate change magnifies existing inequalities, reinforcing the disparity between women and men in their vulnerability to and capability to cope with climate change. During natural disasters, more women tend to die or suffer injury than men because they are not warned, cannot swim or cannot leave the house alone. When poor women lose their livelihoods, they slip deeper into poverty and the inequality and marginalisation they suffer from because of their gender increases.
Women’s responsibilities in the family make them more vulnerable to environmental change, which is exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. They are affected in their multiple roles as food producers and providers, guardians of health, care-givers and economic actors. As access to basic needs and natural resources – such as shelter, food, fertile land, water and fuel – is hampered, women’s workload increases. Drought, deforestation and erratic rainfall mean that women have to work harder to secure resources and livelihoods. In such situations, women have less time to earn income, get an education or training, or to participate in governing bodies. Girls regularly drop out of school to help their mothers to gather wood and water.
Conflict arising from a shortage of natural resources amplifies existing gender inequalities, while the relocation of people severely impacts on social support networks and family ties – mechanisms that have a crucial value for women and on their coping capacity.
Women, however, can also be positive agents of change and contributors to livelihood adaptation strategies, and natural disasters can provide women with a unique opportunity to challenge and change their gendered status in society. Women have been willing and able to take an active role in what are traditionally considered ‘male’ tasks in responding to disasters, mobilising communities to respond to disasters and in disaster preparedness and mitigation.
Women usually have fewer assets than men to recover from natural disasters, and usually do not own land that can be sold to secure income in an emergency. Among the problems women identify when having to adapt to climate change are lack of safe land and shelter, lack of other assets and resources, limited access to material and financial resources, lack of relevant skills and knowledge, high prices of agricultural inputs and other materials, and cultural barriers limiting women’s access to services.
However, worldwide, women are starting to adapt to a changing climate and can articulate what they need to secure and sustain their livelihoods more effectively. Local strategies for adapting to climate change provide valuable lessons. In studies from areas where flooding was problematic, women’s adaptation coping strategies and mechanisms included:
- moving to safer places: higher locations, making temporary shelters, increasing the plinth level of their houses or homesteads, and migration
- saving their assets: trying to store seeds and moving livestock to higher places
- dietary adaptations: skipping meals or eating non-traditional foods (such as water hyacinth)
- preserving food to be used in lean times
- energy-saving: use of alternative energy-related technologies
- adapting agricultural practices: e.g. switching to crops and/or varieties that are flood- or drought-resistant, multiple cropping and intercropping practices, alternative irrigation facilities, changing cultivation to more easily marketable crop varieties or to other animals (in Bangladesh, ducks instead of poultry)
- earning income or saving money: working as labourers, borrowing money from money lenders, saving part of their earnings, or selling livestock
- alternative health care: use of traditional medicine
- organising and collective action: e.g. setting up of community-based self-help groups and networks, and group savings, or systems of group labour
The policy environment has yet to fully incorporate the gender-specific characteristics of vulnerability and adaptive capacity. Environmental issues, including policies, laws and programmes, are often treated as being gender neutral. This is reflected in the inadequate representation of women in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol.
Whereas there is clear evidence of a direct link between gender relations and impacts of and adaptation to climate change, women’s voices and participation in decision-making structures and processes are still inadequate. Climate change debates, processes and mechanisms at national level often fail to sufficiently adopt a gender-sensitive strategy, and there is little evidence of specific efforts to target women in adaptation activities funded by bilateral and multilateral programmes. The unique opportunity to change traditional gender roles that is presented when a disaster occurs is often wasted.
A broader evaluation of women’s vulnerability to climate change can be achieved through the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) and by estimating the degree of vulnerability to natural risks. Many NAPAs emphasise the vulnerability of women and the importance of gender equality in broad terms. However, few describe how women are affected by climate change, much less how they might be identified as powerful actors and agents of change. Prioritised activities in many NAPAs fail to include women as contributors and target groups.
Where NAPAs take gender aspects into consideration, substantial work still has to be done to implement gender mainstreaming in climate change policies. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRSPs) could serve as important reference documents in that respect. Civil society groups play an important role in mobilising for critical action in support of marginalised groups and in addressing equity considerations – and therefore are significant in strengthening gender responsiveness in climate change, enhancing human security.
Greater inclusion of women and inclusion of a gender-specific approach in climate change adaptation and decision-making may reverse the inequitable distribution of climate change impacts. And greater inclusion could improve adaptive decision-making itself, reducing the negative impacts on the entire community, thus enhancing human security.
This article is extracted from Gender, Climate Change & Human Security, a report published in 2008 by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO www.wedo.org) with ABANTU for Development (www.abantu-rowa.org) in Ghana, ActionAid Bangladesh (www3.actionaid.org/bangladesh/) and ENDA (www.enda.sn) in Senegal. Authors: Irene Dankelman, Khurshid Alam, Wahida Bashar Ahmed, Yacine Diagne Gueye, Naureen Fatema and Rose Mensah-Kutin.
Full report online at www.wedo.org/library.aspx?ResourceID=269
For more resources on gender and climate change/disasters, see the online Gender and Disaster Network at www.gdnonline.org.