Environmental Change, Migration, and Gender

(March 2012) Men and women experience migration differently. The pressures to migrate, destination choices, employment prospects, and implications for social relations back home all vary by gender. As a result, when considering climate change’s potential impacts on human migration, gender is critically relevant. But most of the policy, public, and academic dialogue surrounding climate change and migration implications remains gender-neutral.

Migration represents a common livelihood strategy for millions of rural households in less developed countries. In many regions, some members of a household move with the ambition of earning income elsewhere, often to send a portion of their earnings back home as remittances. In some regions, culture dictates that women household members migrate. In other regions, men typically move.

The Philippines offer an excellent example of the recent “feminization” of international migration. Women represent a substantial portion of Filipino outmigration. In 2005, for example, nearly 65 percent of Filipino international migrants were females.1 Indeed, economic globalization has led to a dramatic increase in the number of Filipino women who make “solo” moves or move with others outside their family circle.2 Domestic workers from remote islands in the Philippines have been drawn by the “pull” of economic opportunity in the country’s urban areas as well as to nearby Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Arabian Gulf.

The opposite case is true in rural Mexico, where men typically migrate, particularly to the United States. This pattern of male-dominated migration is the product of guest-worker programs and other professional opportunities that favor males. Cultural norms related to gender roles also make it relatively unlikely for Mexican women to move independently, and more likely to move with other family members, particularly their husbands.3

Overlay climate change on these scenarios of gender-based migration and it’s easy to see how climate change portends important impacts on men and women’s lives—especially within the millions of rural households that depend on agriculture and local natural resources for subsistence and income. Although the potential for large-scale international migration as a result of climate change has been exaggerated in media and policy circles, migration within regions and within nations is a typical and expected response to environmental stress.4

For example, social development consultant Geraldine Terry argues that climate stress on West African livelihoods is partly to blame for the deaths of young men trying to reach Europe by boat. In these cultural settings, gender roles prescribe male migration, thereby creating gender-specific vulnerabilities that put men at risk.5

Yet in rural Nepal, environmental “push” factors affect women. Nepal is one of the world’s least developed countries, and many households depend on the local environment for sustenance and for materials to create market goods, such as reed baskets. And collecting these resources, including firewood, falls to rural Nepali women. Recent research by Pratikshya Bohra-Mishra and Douglas Massey, of Princeton University’s Office of Population Research, connects environmental change to gender-based migration. Their research, covering nearly a decade, found that increased collection times are associated with female outmigration. As Massey explains, “since fodder and firewood are gathered from local forests, these results imply that deforestation is a significant cause of increased female mobility within the Chitwan Valley.”6

Of course, the impacts of climate change will vary widely across the globe—some regions will experience drought and increased temperatures while others will experience more extreme events such as hurricanes. But certainly, people in rural areas, where households rely daily on their local environment, may feel these effects most intensely. Here, men and women will experience the pressures of climate-related migration differently and, as a result, gender must be considered within the climate-migration connection.7

Years of effort to bring gender to the migration-climate dialogue reached a major turning point in 2007 at the UNFCC climate change conference, COP13, in Bali. A global network of women and gender activists was created—GenderCC, Women for Climate Justice—to bring the recognition of gender to climate policy and programs.8 At 2011’s COP17 in Durban, South Africa, Eunice Warue of GenderCC argued that effective climate policy must include adaptation programs financed through “gender-sensitive, transparent and equitable climate finance mechanisms.”9 GenderCC and other advocacy groups also argue for increased sensitivity to gender distinctions within climate vulnerability research.10


Lori M. Hunter is an associate professor of sociology, Institute of Behavioral Science, Programs on Population, Environment and Society, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is also editor-in-chief of Population and Environment. This article is part of PRB’s CPIPR project, funded by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Hunter is liaison from the University of Colorado’s Population Center to CPIPR. Other NICHD-funded researchers who are highlighted in this article are Pratikshya Bohra-Mishra and Douglas Massey, of Princeton University’s Office of Population Research.



  1. UNFPA, “Migration by Region: Asia Fact Sheet.” Calculations based on Philippine Labour Department data. See Jeremaiah Opiniano, “More Remittances From Women Emphasize Feminization of Migration: ADB Study” (2005), accessed at
  2. UNFPA, State of the World Population: A Passage to Hope, Women and International Migration (New York: United Nations Population Fund, 2006).
  3. Marcela Cerrutti and Magali Gaudi, “Gender Differences Between Mexican Migration to the United States and Paraguayan Migration to Argentina,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 630 (2010); and Marcela Cerrutti and Douglas S. Massey, “On the Auspices of Female Migration to the United States,” Demography 38, no. 2 (2001): 187-200.
  4. Clark L. Gray, “Environmental Refugees or Economic Migrants” (2011), accessed at
  5. Geraldine Terry, “No Climate Justice Without Gender Justice: An Overview of the Issues,” Gender & Development 17, no. 1 (2009).
  6. Pratikshya Bohra-Mishra and Douglas S. Massey, “Environmental Degradation and Out-Migration: Evidence From Nepal,” in Climate Change and Migration, ed. Etienne Piguet, Paul de Guchteneire, and Antoine Pecoud (New York: UNESCO Publishing and Cambridge University Press, 2011): 74-101.
  7. For more information, see: Katharine M. Donato et al., “Variations in the Gender Composition of Immigrant Populations: How They Matter,” International Migration Review 45, no. 3 (2011): 495-52; Lori M. Hunter and Emmanuel David, “Climate Change and Migration: Considering Gender Dimensions,” in Climate Change and Migration, ed. Etienne Piguet, Paul de Guchteneire, and Antoine Pecoud (New York: UNESCO Publishing and Cambridge University Press, 2011): 306-30; and United Nations, “Fact Sheet: Women and Climate Change” (2009), accessed at
  8. GenderCC:
  9. Eunice Warue, speech to the “AWG-LCA Intervention, Women and Gender Constituency,” Dec. 9, 2011, accessed at
  10. Other groups include Women’s Environment and Development Organization ( and Global Gender and Climate Alliance (