If climate change is one of the major challenges of our time, climate change adaptation is an opportunity to reconsider the roots of our societies, which can render some people more vulnerable and some more resilient to a changing climate.

Climate change can amplify existing inequalities: people facing several kinds of discrimination in their everyday lives are those hit the hardest by climate change and the least likely to successfully adapt. Gender intersects with conditions and identities, such as ethnicity, sexuality, class, cast, age and/or (dis)ability, and shapes and is shaped by power relations. These conditions and identities result in roles, responsibilities, practices and norms that have been historically and socially constructed, translating into discriminations and marginalization. Adaptation that ignores these experiences is likely to exacerbate injustice and inequality and increase people’s vulnerabilities, which can lead to further maladaptation. Gendered vulnerabilities to climate change and disasters are therefore not inevitable – instead they are social constructs that can be transformed.

Key principles for gender-transformative climate change adaptation

Gender-transformative climate change adaptation is a holistic approach that focuses on the economic, political, ecological and cultural causes of vulnerability of different groups, aiming to address the roots of vulnerability through actions that challenge the fundamental attributes of a system in response to climate and its effects. These actions aim to transform power relations shaped by unequal patriarchal norms and practices, and to empower women so that they have greater capacity to adapt.

The background paper for the Global Commission on Adaptation highlights the systemic nature of gender and social inequality through natural environments, food security and livelihoods, cities, infrastructure, industry and supply chains, investments and finance. A gender-transformative approach to climate change adaptation should build on the following principles:

  1. Context awareness. Climate vulnerabilities are intrinsically linked to local contexts, and ongoing monitoring of the situation helps to identify gaps and opportunities to accelerate transformative change. Gendered vulnerabilities cannot be addressed through one-size-fits-all climate change adaptation measures. Instead, a holistic approach is required to tackle systemic and specific power imbalances.
  2. Equal access to and control over resources and assets. Adaptation practices such as claiming land for reforestation can change how resources are managed, which can exclude women who do not have formal and secure land rights. Similarly, access to safe and secure housing is crucial in the context of extreme climate events and are often a condition for having access to response, relief and recovery. Women who have access to resources and can decide how to manage them are better prepared to adapt.
  3. Recognize and address women’s time poverty due to care and domestic work. Adaptation programmes often rely on women for implementing these measures, adding to their list of unpaid and time-consuming chores. Unpaid care and domestic work are important barriers to women’s earning power, which could lead to better resilience. Climate change adaptation should not be another gendered responsibility.
  4. Invest in basic social services, infrastructure and social protection. Access to safe and reliable social services and infrastructure, such as clean water and public transportation, mean that women have more time and better mobility. Social protection is essential to ensure stability in normal times and better recovery from climate-induced disasters.
  5. Open up spaces for discussion, collaboration, participation and decision-making. Climate adaptation should enable and encourage participation and leadership in decision making from all groups affected by choices about their immediate environment and its resources. This means participation at the household, community, sub-national and national scales.

Climate change is a burning issue, and the unprecedented gravity of the phenomenon can lead to  rushed decisions and planning, which can worsen the situation for frontline victims. Instead, climate change adaptation should be considered as an opportunity to build not only more resilient but also more just societies. Adopting a gender-transformative approach appears to be the best way to tackle vulnerabilities and inequalities at the same time.

The Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA) seeks to accelerate adaptation by elevating the political visibility of adaptation and focusing on concrete solutions. The GCA flagship report Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience, released in September 2019, was informed by several background papers on thematic and cross-cutting issues.

The GCA commissioned a team of researchers led by Bernadette P. Resurrección to explore gender issues in climate change adaptation. The background paper – Gender-transformative Climate Change Adaptation: Advancing Social Equity – is available on the GCA website. Through a literature review covering gender and adaptation around the world, the paper offers examples, mainly from the Global South, of promising practices for more just climate change adaptation.