Women and climate change: An uneven balance

June 1, 2022
Photo by Gavin Douglas

The gender inequalities of climate change are proven to be more fatal to women during and after emergencies and leave them more vulnerable to other threats.

With women and girls making up 70% of people living in extreme poverty, and the climate crisis having a disproportionate effect on low- and lower-middle–income countries, it’s no surprise that women are more affected by climate change than men. This isn’t just anecdotal, nor is it an easy situation to contain: The gender inequalities of climate change are proven to be more fatal to women during and after emergencies, leave them more vulnerable in terms of key areas like food security and livelihoods, and their impacts can carry lasting effects for all of us. 

It’s a complex topic, but we’ve done our best to break it down into eight things you need to know about women and climate change. 

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1. Women can work the land, but they aren’t allowed to own it

48% of women in low-income countries rely on the land for their livelihoods. However, in many of these countries, it’s illegal for women to own the land that they work, even if it’s a family plot. At a Seeds of Hope event, our activist friend Bono put it more succinctly: “They can work the land, but they can’t [expletive] OWN the land.”

This puts women at a significant financial disadvantage for being as successful as their male counterparts. Female farmers often lack equitable access to the same tools, seeds, and other resources, meaning that their land is less productive. This means they’re also left out of many initiatives to help farmers adapt to the effects of climate change (more on that in a bit).

Woman in Malawi with her crops

Esime Jenala is a lead farmer in Chituke village, Malawi, helping to spread the message of conservation agriculture. Concern has been carrying out Climate Smart Agriculture programming in the country since 2012, with the assistance of Accenture Ireland. (Photo: Kieran McConville / Concern Worldwide)

2. Food, water, and fuel — all natural resources — are usually a woman’s responsibility

Water is a women’s issue. Over 2 billion people around the world lack clean water at home, which means collecting water from a source point. Which means often walking 30 minutes each way. Which means women and girls are left to complete what UNICEF calls “a colossal waste of time” — a total of 200 million hours spent fetching water every day. Likewise, collecting food and firewood as well as other natural fuels are often chores left for women and girls. 

With resources becoming more scarce due to the climate crisis, many women and girls are left to go even further for these daily necessities. This not only takes up a significant portion of their days, but also leaves them open to attacks, either by another human (especially in conflict zones) or wild animals. 

Harta* (60), Hamila* (8), Hdidja* (30) and Fadoul* (7) travel to far distances to find water. This is a daily chore and takes hours from their day.
*Names changed for security reasons. (Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide)

3. Women are more likely to be injured or killed during a natural disaster

In more ways than one, gender equality saves lives. A 2006 study conducted by the London School of Economics showed that, across 141 natural disasters, women mortality rates are higher than men’s in situations where “economic and social rights are [not] fulfilled for both sexes.” 

Harmful gender norms leave women behind men in terms of some key, lifesaving skills during a natural disaster: Women are more likely to be illiterate, which means they may not have the full information they need in an early warning system or following a climate event. They are also less likely to know how to swim or climb trees, as the UN Environment Program points out, and in some circumstances may not be allowed to evacuate their home without a man’s consent. They’re also often left to care for other vulnerable people, including children and the elderly. All of these factors contribute to women being more likely to lose their lives, or at the very least sustain major injuries, when a disaster strikes. 

Tulasa Aryal from Nepal

Tulasa Aryal, tries to salvage what she can from her home in Bakrang, a village near the epicenter of the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Out of 793 homes in Bakrang, 515 were completely destroyed. (Photo: Crystal Wells / Concern Worldwide)

4. Women are also more vulnerable during emergency response following a disaster

Women who survive a flood, mudslide, drought, or earthquake are still vulnerable. In the wake of a climate-related emergency, people often have to relocate either temporarily (such as last year’s Mount Nyiragongo eruption), or for a longer period of time (such as the large number of IDPs in the wake of a decade-long drought in Somalia). In these contexts, women and girls — especially those heading their own family without a male partner or guardian — are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and human trafficking. They also face greater discrimination in supply and aid distribution, and miss out on key information. As UN Women notes, this creates a “cycle of vulnerability” against future disasters. It can also fuel a family’s cycle of poverty.

5. Climate-related health issues pose a greater risk to women…

There are a number of health issues that can be attributed in part to climate change. Air pollution leads to greater chances of respiratory disease (such as asthma) and cardiovascular issues. Floods, monsoons, and cyclones contribute to higher rates of waterborne illnesses. Less food grown means less food available to eat.

This isn’t a shared burden. Women are often more susceptible to these issues, inhaling more toxins cooking over non-eco–stoves and using more water in their daily routines which could leave them open to parasites. Maternal and child health is affected by climate-related events, especially if a climate disaster requires a country or community’s healthcare system to divert maternity resources to emergency response. And women are often the first to cut back on their food (and, by extension, nutrition) when a climate-affected harvest doesn’t yield as much as expected. 

Pregnant Chagawa* is seen by Concern midwife Rebekka at a Mobile Health Clinic in a remote rural area of Aweil, South Sudan. (Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Concern Worldwide; *name changed for security)

6. …though some of these risks can affect the whole family

It’s important to note that, as with many of these issues, these impacts don’t solely affect women. A woman who is malnourished during her pregnancy is more likely to give birth to a malnourished child, setting them up for a lifetime of potential health and development issues. Viruses like Zika, which come from mosquito bites, can also be passed in-vitro. Beyond the right of all people to enjoy equal opportunities and treatment from a society, this is another reason that we should all care about gender equality in the context of climate change.

7. Climate migration and displacement can exacerbate gender inequalities

Climate refugees face a unique set of challenges. Because they are not, strictly speaking, refugees, and many only migrate within their own country, they aren’t accorded the same rights and protections as legal refugees. “These people fall through the cracks,” Erol Yayboke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told NPR in 2018. 

“It’s hard for countries to come to a consensus on something like this.… The reality is there are tens of millions of these people, and we don’t agree on what we can do about them.”

In the meantime, many people displaced by climate change are women. Female refugees often face their own challenges within an already-challenging context, and without the same rights accorded to women forced to migrate due to climate, they’re that much further behind. Finding basic, and safe, shelter is more difficult for women, and they are also at heightened risk for sexual assault and gender-based violence. Earning an income while in displacement is another challenge, and many women are left without a support system in place.

8. Many women in frontline communities are left behind by some of the solutions to climate change

Community plans for early warning and other forms of disaster risk reduction often leave out the people who stand to lose the most from these disasters. The problem is that, when these systems are then put into place, they don’t account for the adjustments that would need to be made for the elderly, disabled, or — most often — women. This also holds true for the more “everyday” responses to global warming, such as Climate Smart Agriculture practices. Many women are left out of these trainings and resource distributions. 

This is all the more true for Indigenous women, women who are HIV-positive, women of a non-dominant race, caste, or ethnicity, and women whose other identities can leave them further marginalized beyond their gender.  As the Thai activist Matcha Phorn-in put it: “If you are invisible in everyday life, your needs will not be thought of, let alone addressed, in a crisis situation.” 

What’s especially damaging about this truth is that women are key partners and leaders in the fight against climate change. Bringing their expertise and experience to the decision-making table will ensure that the ways we fight the climate crisis will be more sustainable, successful, and equitable — for all. 

Woman with goat herd outside her home in Turkana, northern Kenya

Ng’ikario Ekiru with the last of her goat herd outside their home in Turkana, northern Kenya. She is feeding her family with wild desert fruit and roasted animal hides as the area experiences the second drought in three years. (Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide)

Women and climate change: Concern’s response

Concern’s climate change response is built on the understanding that climate vulnerability depends not only on the impacts of climate change on a community, but also that community’s resilience to climate emergencies. 

From start to finish, our projects fully involve communities in the planning and execution process. We also make a point of finding the most vulnerable groups within communities — such as women and the disabled — to ensure that our programs leave no one behind. Our projects don’t focus solely on dramatic headline-grabbing events such as cyclones or droughts, but also on the everyday climate risks; smaller, less dramatic events which combine to keep people in poverty.