(December 2012) Like many rural women worldwide, Leucadia spends hours each day hauling water for her family to drink and wash, as well as for their livestock and crops. The glaciers that used to provide generous amounts of clean water to Bolivian mountain communities have shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years, and Leucadia now must collect water farther away, reports the United Nations Population Fund in a publication that tells her story.1
Many women around the world must adapt their lives to a changing climate. Increases in extreme weather conditions—droughts, storms, and floods—are already altering economies, economic development, and patterns of human migration, and are likely to be among the biggest global health threats this century. Everyone will be affected by these changes, but not equally. Vulnerability to climate change will be determined by a community or individual's ability to adapt.2
Studies have shown that women disproportionately suffer the impacts of disasters, severe weather events, and climate change because of cultural norms and the inequitable distribution of roles, resources, and power, especially in developing countries.
Poverty and Limited Education Are Barriers
Women make up the majority of the world's poor and are more dependent than men on natural resources for their livelihoods and survival. Women tend to have lower incomes and are more likely to be economically dependent than men. When drought or unseasonable rain, for example, threatens agricultural production, men can use their savings and economic independence to invest in alternative income sources or otherwise adapt. In times of food scarcity and drought, women will often give priority to their husbands—his nutritional needs will be met before hers.
Women are also more vulnerable because they have less access to education and information that would allow them to manage climate-related risks to agriculture and livestock. In India, many women have considerably less access than men to critical information on weather alerts and cropping patterns, affecting their capacity to respond effectively to climate variability.3
Childbearing Increases Women's Vulnerability
In much of the world, women are still engaged in traditional roles as mothers and family caregivers. Men may be able to migrate for economic opportunities, but women are more likely to remain home to care for children and elderly or sick family members.
Climate change has a significant impact on securing household water, food, and fuel—activities that usually are the responsibility of women and girls. In times of drought and erratic rainfall, women and girls must walk farther and spend more of their time collecting water and fuel. Girls may have to drop out of school to help their mothers with these tasks, continuing the cycle of poverty and inequity. Changing climates also affect the health of crops and livestock, and women, who are often responsible for producing the food eaten at home, must work harder for less food.
Lack of Power Plays a Role
Lack of independence and decisionmaking power constrain women's ability to adapt to climate change. Women often have limited or no control over family finances and assets. In many communities, women are underrepresented in community politics, and thus have little influence over community strategies for adapting and over policies that support women's rights and priorities. Without participation by women, programs to replace traditional crops with those better suited to the changing environment might focus only on the needs of men's fields and not address the problems women face with household gardens.
Cultural restrictions on mobility can impede women's access to information and services. In addition, during extreme weather events, women may not be able to relocate without the consent of a male relative. Traditional clothing may inhibit women's ability to run or swim, making it harder for them to escape disasters. Women who have lost clothing in disasters may be less likely to access food and medical aid because they are unable to enter public areas.4
Early Childbearing, High Fertility Exacerbate Risks
A 2007 study found that, on average, natural disasters kill more women than men and lower the life expectancy of women more than men. The stronger the disaster, the stronger the impact on the gender gap in life expectancy. In the Asian tsunami of 2004, survival was much higher among men than women. This inequity can be attributed to many possible and interrelated causes, but the fact that this effect is most pronounced where women have lower socioeconomic status and power leads experts to believe that the causes are more cultural than biological or physiological.5
The indirect effects of climate warming and increased humidity have greater consequences for women. For example, in some regions, rising temperatures mean an increase in the transmission of malaria. Various physiological changes, such as increased exhaled breath and heat dissipation, make pregnant women more appealing to malaria-carrying mosquitoes, leaving them particularly vulnerable to malaria.
Early childbearing and high fertility are associated with poor health and lower levels of education, and limit women's ability to earn and save money and to adapt to climate change.6 Nevertheless, reproductive health and family planning are largely absent from strategies for adapting to climate change, as are activities that address rapid population growth and high fertility that result from unintended pregnancies and an unmet need for family planning.7
Women Can Influence Change
Many women have a strong body of traditional and environmental knowledge gleaned from years of helping their female relatives, collecting and managing resources, and raising their families. When they are in control of resources, women are more likely than men to use them for family health and economic stability. Research also shows that women may be more likely to change strategies in response to new information and to make decisions that minimize risk.8 All these qualities suggest that when women are empowered, they can be extremely effective agents of adaptation to climate change.
The humanitarian organization CARE seeks to include and empower women in planning and implementing climate-change adaptation strategies. In Bangladesh, women farmers reported that their profitable chickens were drowning because of frequent floods. Collaborating with CARE, they came up with a solution—raise ducks instead.9 And women involved in this project described their increased participation in household and community decisionmaking.10
Empowering women and achieving gender equality are important goals in themselves, but are also critical components of managing climate change and creating a sustainable future.
Rachel Winnik Yavinsky is a policy associate at the Population Reference Bureau.
- UN Population Fund (UNFPA), State of the World Population: Women, Population and Climate Change (New York: UNFPA, 2009).
- Care International, "Adaptation, Gender and Women's Empowerment," Care International Climate Change Brief (2010), accessed at www.careclimatechange.org/files/adaptation/CARE_Gender_Brief_Oct2010.pdf, on Oct. 16, 2012.
- World Health Organization (WHO), Gender, Climate Change and Health (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2011).
- Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper, "The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters: The Impact of Catastrophic Events on the Gender Gap in Life Expectancy, 1981–2002," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 97, no. 1 (2007): 551–66.
- Neumayer and Plümper, "The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters."
- WHO, Gender, Climate Change and Health.
- Mutunga Cliff and Hardee Karen, "Population and Reproductive Health in National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) for Climate Change in Africa," African Journal Reproductive Health 14, no. 4 (2010): 127-39.
- CARE International, "Adaptation, Gender and Women's Empowerment."
- UNFPA, State of the World Population: Women, Population and Climate Change.
- CARE International, "Adaptation, Gender and Women's Empowerment."