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The Gendered Repercussions of Climate Change

The Gendered Repercussions of Climate Change

Climate Change  makes the living and surviving conditions poor especially for women as the  increase 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. 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.

Women tend to earn less than men and are not economically independent they are supposed to be more dependent on the natural resources for their livelihood. 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. 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 independence and decision making 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. 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. 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. 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.

Natural disasters disrupt daily routines and complicate gender and family roles, which can cause victims of natural disasters to feel powerless and frustrated. These feelings often result in aggression against less powerful groups. Women and children in developed and developing countries are at higher risk of sexual abuse during and after natural disasters than before. Condom use during disasters is also lower than at other times, because of decreased access to condoms. Combined with the accelerated spread of diseases and infections in developing countries, the breakdown of the social order and the malnourishment that sometimes accompanies climate change have led to higher rates of dengue fever, malaria, HIV and STI transmission, especially for women. Elderly women are also particularly at risk during natural disasters and times of crisis because they are more susceptible to climatically-induced health risks like disease and because they are often isolated from social support to which men and some younger women have access. Not only the impacts of The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report concludes that there is ‘robust evidence’ for an increase of gender inequalities as a result of weather events as well as for the perpetuation of differential vulnerabilities. The increase of inequalities due to climate change can have several reasons. For example, girls often face more serious risks than boys due to unequal distribution of scarce resources within the household. This effect is amplified by climate change induced resource scarcity. Furthermore, Climate change often results in an increase of out-migration of men. This leaves women with an increased work-load at home, resulting in a feminization of responsibilities. Climate change is predicted to increase frequency and magnitude of natural hazards such as extreme heat.During and after these hazards especially women are burdened with increased care work for children, the sick and old, adding furthermore to already significant amount of household duties.

Gender-based differences in time use, access to assets and credit and treatment by markets and formal institutions (including the legal and regulatory framework) constrain women’s opportunities. As a result, there is a global gender gap in earnings and productivity—women make between 30 and 80 percent of what men earn annually. A World Bank survey in 141 countries showed that 103 countries continue to impose legal differences on the basis of gender that may hinder women’s economic opportunities.10 In addition, two thirds of the world’s 743 million illiterate adults are women.11 although women make up 43 percent of the overall agricultural labor force, and percentages vary by region and country. Overall, women make up half of the agricultural labor force in the least developing countries, while in developing countries (where data is available), they own between 10 and 20 percent of the land.12 The cumulative effects of poverty and social, economic and political barriers is that women will often be disadvantaged in coping with the adverse impacts of the changing climate.

Socio-cultural norms can limit women from acquiring the information and skills necessary to escape or avoid hazards (e.g. swimming and climbing trees to escape rising water levels). Similarly, dress codes imposed on women can restrict their mobility in times of disaster, as can their responsibility for small children who cannot swim or run. Such social influences render women disproportionately vulnerable to disasters and related negative effects of climate change. Also, a lack of sex disaggregated data in all sectors (e.g. livelihoods, disasters’ preparedness, and protection of environment, health and well-being) often leads to an underestimation of women’s roles and contributions. This situation can then result in gender-blind climate change policy and programming, which does not take into account the gender differentiated roles of both women and men (i.e. their distinct needs, constraints and priorities). As such, such policies and programming can have the unintended effect of actually increasing gender-based vulnerability.

Taniya Banerjee

Assistant Professor

Department of Political Science

Patna Women’s College (Autonomous)