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Four Ways Climate Change Affects Women More Than Men

Plus: Five ways women have led, or might lead, climate-change adaptations that narrow the gender gap.
Women harvest cowpeas in Ghana. (Photo: Elisa Walton/USAID)

Women harvest cowpeas in Ghana. (Photo: Elisa Walton/USAID)

The residents of Nwadjahane, a village in southern Mozambique, have already seen some of the changes that are expected to come with global warming. Since the 1980s, droughts and floods have hit the village harder and more frequently than before. But the villagers adapted, forming farming associations that placed collective responsibility on finding potential solutions to climate disasters, such as planting new, drought-resistant species of rice, corn, and cassava. Those associations are especially popular with women, according to a report by the International Institute for Environment and Development, a policy-research group. And as a result, women's status among farmers has risen.

That's just one example of how women in the developing world may be uniquely affected by climate change—and how they can come up with unique solutions. Over the past few years, several research groups have noted that, in developing regions, women and girls may suffer more from global warming than men and boys do. That struggle comes on top of the unique challenges of dealing with climate change in regions with little money, infrastructure, or government support.

In developing regions, women and girls may suffer more from global warming than men and boys do.

Here are four ways the consequences of climate change differ by gender:

  • Farmers with small holdings in Africa will be among those most severely affected by global warming, argues a report published this week by the advocacy group Agriculture for Impact. That's because changes in weather and temperature are expected to reduce crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa, making it more difficult for farmers—many of whom are already poor—to feed their families. And most of those farmers happen to be women: Women make up 45 percent to 80 percent of the food-producing workforce in developing countries, according to the United Nations WomenWatch.
  • Around the world, women and girls are the most likely to be responsible for gathering water and fuel for fires for their families. If climate change makes certain water and wood sources more unreliable, these water- and wood-gatherers will have to walk farther every day, limiting the time they have to perform other tasks, like earn money, learn new skills, or simply rest.
  • Climate change is expected to make food shortages more severe and frequent. That's especially bad news for women and girls, because in times of shortage, their health is more likely to suffer than their male counterparts', according to U.N. WomenWatch. Women and girls are often the first to reduce how much they eat, sacrificing their diets for other family members.
  • Global warming is supposed to make disasters such as floods more severe and frequent. A study of natural disasters that struck between 1981 and 2002 found that, in countries where women don't have the same social and economic status as men, they're more likely to die in the aftermath of calamities. A possible reason for the discrepancy: cultural norms that prohibit women from learning to swim, or from visiting relief centers alone, the International Food Policy Research Institute notes.

At the same time, women have been involved in some unique solutions for matters of inequality, like the Nwadjahane farming associations. Here are a few more examples:

  • In Gujarat, India, the Self Employed Women's Association launched a campaign in 1995 to improve the local water supply systems and reduce how much time women spent gathering water. Although both men and women were skeptical at first, the association eventually gained the locals' trust, by having female technicians work on the systems, and by holding community meetings, according to a joint report from the Asian Development Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. After the campaign, women earned higher incomes because they had more free time to do other work.
  • In Bolivia's high-altitude plains, a program encouraged traditional specialist farmers, called yapuchiri, to train others on how to observe plants and animals to predict the weather in the coming year. The training helped prevent farmers from losing too much of their crop yield. Female yapuchiris contributed to the program by spreading their traditionally gendered knowledge of storing and timing the sowing of different seeds.

There's still plenty of room for better integrating women in developing regions into climate-change adaptation. A couple of suggestions we've seen include:

  • Recruiting women to participate in developing emergency evacuation plans, which could help ensure there are plans for getting women out.
  • Hiring equal numbers of female and male trainers to teach climate-adaption farming strategies, which would help get around cultural rules in some places that forbid female farmers from spending a lot of time with a male trainer.

The existing solutions show how helpful women-led climate-change adaptations can be. Further initiatives could narrow the gender gap among those affected by climate change, and make a warming world easier to deal with for everyone.