The consequences of climate change reverberate through society differently for rich and poor, powerful and marginalized. Many families already live with the knowledge of the damage that droughts, floods, and salinization of soil and water bring. For the poor and marginalized, decisions about how to adapt to climate change are conditioned by insecure homes, communities, food supplies and incomes. And often it is girls and women who are especially exposed to new climate-related insecurities or are burdened with the strain of responding to disaster and adapting to chronic impacts.

For example, girls’ schooling and climbing literacy rates are a development success story, but climate-related stresses can curtail that success. In some climate-vulnerable countries, girls may be taken out of school to reduce the drain on household resources, while boys continue their education during the crisis period.

As a coping strategy, parents may also consider early marriage – placing their daughter in a less insecure home. But marriage does not necessarily offer protection. As ecosystems degrade from climate extremes, household burdens on women and girls can increase, forcing them to search for resources in unsecured areas, increasing their exposure to violence and sexual assault. Such threats are even higher if families are displaced by disaster.

Even adaptation initiatives that aim to address inequalities can carry risks if not carefully implemented. For example, many adaptation programmes inadvertently build on earlier models of interventions that simply add adaptation activities to the already long list of women’s responsibilities. Such an approach doesn’t empower women to exercise their rights over the use of their time and resources or benefit from these adaptation activities. Such programmes may also assume women to be a homogeneous group, ignoring vital intersections with class, ethnicity, age, sexuality and (dis)ability that compound their capacities to adapt.

A transformative agenda

So how can we effectively adapt and empower? By placing equity front and centre when designing policies, practices and interventions. This would make adaptation to climate change a transformative agenda, not just an instrumental act. As the first step in a successful transformation, planners and decision-makers need to understand the underlying drivers of inequity and how they make specific groups of women, men, poor, ethnic and disabled groups vulnerable to climate change. Research on gender and climate adaptation has identified three underlying drivers.

Gendered responsibilities

Health

  • Climate change produces conditions that propel the spread of malaria, especially flooding and high temperatures. Pregnant women are four times more likely to suffer from attacks of symptomatic malaria than other adults. Growing evidence indicates that gender-specific effects of malaria are felt most acutely by poor, marginalized, and rural young women.
  • At manufacturing sites, extreme heat events and high temperatures can cause dehydration, headaches, kidney disease, and heatstroke in exposed workers, who are over-represented by young women, especially within free or special economic zones.

Rights

  • Women’s access to productive agricultural resources and services is not equal to men’s access. This reduces women’s adaptive capacities, especially during critical climate change events.
  • The right of women to own property, often denied, is an important requirement for post-hazard reconstruction of human settlements. Ownership or occupancy rights precludes eviction and enhances security. In the post-hazard reconstruction phase, rebuilding as storm-resistant and gender-sensitive structures will reduce the damage of climate-related hazards in the future.

What works?

Adaptation measures that do not take into account drivers of inequality are likely to exacerbate social injustice and inequalities, which in themselves make adaptation less effective or even counterproductive. Nonetheless, there are examples of initiatives by NGOs, communities and governments that apply an equity lens to enable women, youth and ethnic groups to lead efforts to adapt to climate change.

  • In Cordoba, Colombia, where tropical storms and drought are affecting access to clean water and food security in rural areas, traditional knowledge and know-how is providing tools to adapt to climate change. By using locally adapted seeds and small livestock species, agriculture becomes more climate-resilient and promotes sustainable water gathering, storage, and management. Gender is a key component is the success of this initiative, empowering young women to take on leading roles in the water committees, as their time is no longer burdened by water gathering.
  • With its 2017 Policy on Gender Equality, the Global Climate Fund (GCF) has committed to gender-responsive financing, accountability for gender, and equitable allocation of resources. The GCF places climate investment in the context of sustainable development and seeks a 50/50 allocation between mitigation and adaptation, with a focus on the most vulnerable countries and people. The guidelines on gender mainstreaming require indicate gender analysis, action plan, and monitoring and evaluation framework for all projects in full consultation with and participation of local women and men.

Placing equity front and centre

What existing research and these examples show is that decision makers cannot sidestep social injustices and their root causes when planning and implementing adaptation interventions. It is social, political, economic and cultural factors that drive vulnerability: women’s limited access to and control over agricultural resources, such as land and capital, is not directly an effect of climate change but of social, political and economic practices and norms that discriminate on gender grounds. Guidance on applying a gender equality and social equity lens in sustainable development and tools for carrying out gender analyses can help decision makers understand the equity landscape and make efforts to programme accordingly.

At the moment, gendered roles, responsibilities and practices risk being taken for granted, remaining silently accepted and unaddressed in adaptation programmes. Delay in dealing with these inequalities and unjust conditions is likely to worsen the impacts of climate change.