It is widely recognised that climate change does not affect people equally. The related disasters and impacts often intensify existing inequalities, vulnerabilities, economic poverty and unequal power relations. Differently positioned women and men perceive and experience climate change in diverse ways because of their distinct socially constructed gender roles, responsibilities, status and identities, which result in varied coping strategies and responses.
Often, women are more vulnerable to climate change than men. This is because they make up the majority of the world’s economically poor, do most of the agricultural work, bear unequal responsibility for household food security, carry a disproportionate burden for harvesting water and fuel for everyday survival, and rely on threatened natural resources for their livelihoods. Moreover, they have unequal access, control and ownership to these natural resources, and are often excluded from important decision and policy-making forums and institutions that govern them.
Increased vulnerability to natural disasters
The literature on gender differentiated impacts of natural disasters suggests that the impacts of climate change can be gender differentiated. As with natural disasters, climate change is likely to exacerbate previously existing patterns of discrimination that, on average, render women more vulnerable to fatalities and reduce their life expectancy, especially for economically poor women, more than men.
In some regions, men may have higher mortality rates from parasitic and infectious diseases in droughts and famines, reckless behaviour or a higher propensity to engage
in outdoor activities during severe weather events.
However, women are often discouraged from learning coping strategies and lifesaving skills, such as how to climb trees or swim. Both factors put them at a disadvantage when floods hit. Often women are not permitted to evacuate their homes without consent from their husbands or elder men in their families or communities. Gendered cultural codes of dress may inhibit their mobility during crises, resulting in higher disproportionate mortality during many disasters.
These risks may further increase due to isolation, heavy workloads, and lower formal educational levels that limit women’s access to disaster related information, and emergency shelters that are ill-equipped to accommodate women and girls with privacy or separate toilet and sleeping facilities. Other causes of concern are evidence of higher mortality rates for female infants and girls associated with discrimination in food distribution within households and in emergency relief and assistance efforts in times of climate-induced food shortage and famine.
After a natural disaster, economic and security challenges may lead women who are in charge of households and livelihoods to seek temporary relief, shelter and amenable
living conditions in acutely insecure contexts, making them potential targets for exploitation and human trafficking. Disasters that lead to increased physical, social and economic insecurity, and affect women and children, are among some of the push factors that give rise to trafficking. Therefore, insecure disaster regions must be considered as potential areas for such harmful activities.
Coping strategies, adaptation and mitigation
Coping strategies are often also gender differentiated. For example, climate change-induced flooding, drought, and changes in forest management are over time likely to increase women’s workloads in domestic fuel and water collection in some regions. This will therefore, reduce their time available for childcare, education and participation in public life. In some contexts, this may undermine the physical safety and health of women and children or increase the incidence of child labour, as children are enlisted for family survival rather than sent to school.
At the same time, women play very crucial role in climate change adaptation and mitigation, even though their contribution is overlooked or less acknowledged. Women are essential for developing sustainable adaptation options due to their knowledge, multiple and simultaneous responsibilities as well as roles in productive areas. These include all sectors from agriculture, rangelands, biodiversity and forests, to households, income-generation, livelihoods and other sociocultural and political-economic institutions and relations. Worldwide, women are an estimated 43% of the work force in agriculture. In Asia and Africa, this proportion is higher, often above 50%, especially in mountain regions. Hence, women play a key role in adaptation efforts, environmental sustainability and food security as the climate changes.
Policymaking and the gendered nature of climate change
Although climate policy-making has been limited to market mechanisms, we know these would not be sufficient to change human behaviour, redesign institutions or lead to the much needed systemic and structural changes. There is urgency for the processes of policy formulation to be respectful and informed by people’s own aspirations and understandings of what changes are necessary and what futures to construct. Such information is always gender sensitive and likely to arise when policy-making processes are gender aware. These processes will lead to policy that is understood, accepted and implemented in meaningful ways.
Clearly, policymakers, non-governmental organisations, and the academic community need to pay closer attention to the gendered nature of climate change adaptation and impacts. Women will need to be at the centre of research, policy and action on climate change adaptation if these disproportionate risks and consequences are to be avoided. This is not just a matter of justice and equality. It also makes good economic sense.
We have learned in the past decades that having women in politics matters. In climate policy making and negotiations, men are a very large majority. The complexity and uncertainty of the issues, however, makes the policy process challenging. Much of the process is about value judgments and perceptions of risk. This calls for an understanding of policy in innovative ways. We know, through many other topics, that women tend
to have a more cautious view of risks. There is empirical evidence that women are less likely to gamble with the future or to take risks about issues that may affect their own well-being and that of their children and families.
Increasing the presence of women in climate negotiations may make the processes more effective, and increasing the presence and substantive participation of women in policy
making may lead to more credible and legitimate policy instruments. Importantly, the participation of women can also act as a catalyst for changes in existing unequal gender power relations in a society where climate change policy will be implemented. In short, we need more women in climate change negotiations giving their voices to the policy decision-making processes.