Climate change has a negative impact on women’s ability to make meaningful decisions in their lives, according to new research looking at climate change hotspots in Africa and Asia.
Even when household structures, social norms and legal frameworks support women’s agency, environmental stress and its repercussions can still increase the burdens they face compared to men.
The study, published in Nature Climate Change today, analysed 25 case studies from African and Asian climate change hotspots to identify factors that affect women and their ability to adapt.
The researchers wanted to move away from basic climate change and gender analyses that present women as victims, said social scientist and lead author of the paper Nitya Rao of the University of East Anglia.
“What we see in our fieldwork is that women are not sitting there doing nothing. Actually they’re quite active in trying to do a lot of things in order to adapt,” Professor Rao said.
However, Professor Rao and her co-authors found that unless social supports like childcare, health services or minimum wage conditions were in place, it was very hard for women to actually adopt climate change solutions.
This is due to the disproportionate disadvantages women already face, and the extra burdens environmental stress can bring, particularly in societies that mostly rely on agriculture.
These can include gendered labour division, limited access to land, limited access to credit and the reproductive burden women carry, both in bearing and looking after children, Professor Rao said.
Adding to that, women are often left to manage their households alone if their male partners need to migrate to look for work.
“When you double the work of a woman and … she’s not able to do any more work, that’s a good reason for not taking up climate-resilient rice for instance,” Professor Rao said.
The study addresses a really important gap in our understanding of the gender dimensions of vulnerability to climate change, said human geographer Fiona Miller of Macquarie University, who wasn’t involved in the research.
“They might have more responsibility to manage money, but they don’t necessarily have more power to make decisions concerning that money,” Dr Miller said.
In a positive case study from Nepal, women were able to improve their agency by forming a cooperative.
However, low-caste women were excluded from that cooperative.
“I think one of the wider findings of the work is that yes, we need to focus on gender equity, but we also need to …. focus on those women who are especially marginalised due to caste or class or ethnicity,” Dr Miller said.
So, does that mean climate change is sexist?
The research really highlights the social impact of climate change, said Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie.
“What it’s saying is that the people who are most vulnerable will suffer the most, and the most quickly,” she said.
And yet, while organisations like Plan International and Marie Stopes International have position papers on gender and climate change, there isn’t as much awareness of it in the broader public sphere.
“I think that the social dimensions of climate change haven’t been adequately discussed,” Ms McKenzie said.
“We’re still moving beyond understanding climate as an environmental issue, to understanding it’s a human issue [with a] whole range of direct human costs.”
These can be the immediate risks facing people in the middle of a natural disaster for example, or the longer-term impacts that adapting to climate change can have on people’s health and the resilience of their communities.
While climate change itself is not sexist, the nature of gender and power relations means climate stress can exacerbate problems that are already there.
“Whenever there is something occurring that is damaging to our society, it tends to hurt women, people of colour more,” she said.
Ms McKenzie believes there isn’t enough discussion about who is paying the price and who is profiting from climate impacts.
“I think there’s a sexism element there too, because the people who are profiting the most would tend to be powerful men in Western countries.”
Is this research relevant to Australia?
While the research focused on climate change hotspots in Africa and Asia, Professor Rao said it also has relevance for other parts of the world.
“[In] labour markets across the world we know there is a gender wage gap,” she said.
And that includes Australia.
Talking about how climate change affects women’s ability to feed their families is something we can relate to, said geographer Celia McMichael of the University of Melbourne, who wasn’t involved in the work.
“When you read of other people trying to cope with climate variability, I think it’s something we can increasingly empathise with because that is not removed from our lives in Australia [any more],” Dr McMichael said.
“Yeah, we can turn on the AC but we still are dealing with bushfires and things.”
One of the findings the paper identifies is that public institutions are really important in terms of supporting households and communities to respond to environmental stresses, said Dr Miller, and we need to have gender equity within those response organisations.
“If you’re thinking about the fires that we’re dealing with now across Australia, and particularly in New South Wales, we do tend to see an overrepresentation of men in emergency response organisations,” she said.
“If we’re thinking about issues around evacuation, for example, men and women may respond to that challenge in quite different ways.
“If you have emergency response agencies that are sensitive to those gendered issues … then you can give advice and support so that people can make appropriate decisions.”
Ms McKenzie said the importance of educating women and girls has already been shown to be an important climate change solution by organisations such as Project Drawdown.
“I think that these solutions that involve women and girls and education, maternal health etc. are really important,” she said.
“Not just for resilience, but also in getting down emissions in the first instance.”