Climate Change Isn’t Gender Neutral

Climate change is a global threat that increases the vulnerability of all populations, but not equally so. Given existing structures of inequality, access to resources and decision-making positions, and divisions of labor, it is not surprising that there might be significant gender-differentiated risks to climate change. Unfortunately, attention to gender issues in the climate change discourse and in associated policies and actions has been limited. In the evaluation of Rachel Masika, in her edited volume, Gender, Development and Climate Change, a key factor underlying the lack of focus on the differential impact of climate change is that: “Predominant approaches and policy responses [to climate change, to the extent that they have occurred at all] have focused on scientific and technological measures to tackle climate change problems. They have displayed scant regard for the social implications of climate change outcomes and the threats these pose for poor men and women… [and for] gender specific implications … on human, food, and livelihood security…”

Women working in a rice field near Junagadh, Gujarat, India. Photo courtesy Bernard Gagnon and wikicommons
Women working in a rice field near Junagadh, Gujarat, India. Photo courtesy Bernard Gagnon and wikicommons

Existing disaster research provides one window on the gender-based impacts of climate change. This research shows that women are impacted in different ways than men and respond to the severe challenges of a disrupted environment differently as well. These dissimilarities stem from varying frameworks of gender inequality in areas like education, gender-based household and societal responsibilities, differential access to income and productive resources, socially approved public mobility norms, and social power to influence changing climatic drivers and effects. While gender-influenced nutritional and medical access issues have been extensively described in the literatures of medical and nutritional anthropology and of cognate disciplines, climate change is exacerbating the health challenges of women particularly in low-income contexts. In some contexts, moreover, it is likely that climate change will magnify existing patterns of gender inequality.

Rosa Reyes’ study of the effects of the 1997-1998 El Niño event in the Piura region of Peru, for example, linked climate change to malnutrition among women and to increases in infections and problems during pregnancy. Overall her research found that “normal” gender inequalities in the distribution of food within households were exacerbated by extreme weather events. Moreover, climate change increases the workloads of women, as they tend to play the key roles in household health maintenance.

Similarly in Bangladesh, a review of the literature by Terry Cannon reveals that climate-related flooding increases the domestic burden of women. Flooding-related losses of crops and livestock disproportionately impact women who rely on food processing, cattle, and chickens for income. Acquiring potable water, commonly a women’s chore, also is exacerbated by contaminating floodwaters. In contexts where changing conditions lead to the creation of climate refugees, women are placed at significantly heightened risk for assaults, theft, and rape. Social rules restricting women’s presence in public settings multiply the vulnerability of women during climate events that cause shelter seeking or geographic movement. The multiple health-related threats of climate change, in short, threaten to diminish women’s health at the same time that they multiply the labor demands placed on women.

Responses to such concerns have been advanced in recent years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), founded in 1948 as the world’s first global environmental organization, for example, has developed a tool called the Environment and Gender Index that is designed to be used in monitoring government progress in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment in the environmental arena. At the UN climate change conference in Warsaw, Poland (UNFCCC COP19) in the November of 2013, the IUCN released findings from the first application of this tool for 72 countries. Some major findings, showing the shortcoming of efforts to address gender issues in climate change, include:

  • Information about women’s roles and access in environment-related sectors is not widely collected and reported, rendering women virtually invisible in government-directed climate assessment and mitigation efforts.
  • Implementation of existing international agreements on gender and environment is lacking in most countries.
  • The global average for women’s participation in inter-governmental negotiations on climate change, biodiversity, and desertification has peaked at 36 percent.

Not surprisingly, wealthier countries with more resources and women’s movements tended to occupy the highest rankings of the 72 countries in the comparative gender-based assessment. While Iceland received the highest ranking, the U.S. ranked below Poland and Portugal at the 14th slot. A fuller summary of findings, including country and regional performance rankings, is available from the IUCN.

In a world with rapidly changing climatic conditions gender matters, but, in the words of Fatma Denton, this issue has “at best been sidetracked, and at worst [been] blatantly omitted from policy debates on climate change”. Without attention to gender there can be no effective adaptation to the challenges of climate change and hence no sustainable human future. As stressed by the United Nations Development Programme in its Africa Adaptation Programme Discussion Paper Series: “Successful climate change adaptation will require an acknowledgment of the gender dimensions of climate change throughout the design and implementation of climate change strategies and national development plans.”

Merrill Singer is a cultural and medical anthropologist with a dual appointment as Professor of Anthropology and as Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention at the University of Connecticut. His current research focuses on both drug use and HIV risk and environmental health issues, including a growing focus on the impact of global warming on international health.

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