Equity: The Missing Link to Address Gender Inequalities in Climate Change Adaptation
By Dr Philip Omondi
With contributions from the ICPAC Climate Change Technical Working Group
Gender inequalities, fueled by societal norms and defined gender roles, affect not only women’s exposure to hazards, but also limit their resilience and adaptive capabilities. The effects of climate change will be felt by all, however people will not be impacted equally (SEI 2021). Those living through its most adverse effects will have contributed least to the problem and have fewer resources to adapt to its impacts. The consequences of climate change reverberate through society differently for rich and poor, powerful and marginalized, men and women, young and old and so forth. Many families in the Eastern Africa region are acutely aware of the damage droughts, floods, landslides, and other climate hazards pose to their lives and livelihoods. For the poor and marginalized, decisions about how to adapt to climate change are conditioned by insecure homes, communities, food supplies and incomes. Often it is girls and women who are especially exposed to new climate-related insecurities, or burdened with the strain of responding to disaster and adapting to its chronic impacts.
What are the gender inequalities in emerging adaptation efforts and programs in key systems of the Eastern Africa sub-regions (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda)?
Gender inequalities can constrain and undermine climate change adaptation. Those who are vulnerable and marginalized, with limited access to resources and assets, are already facing formidable barriers in adapting to climate change. In some climate-vulnerable communities, girls are taken out of school to reduce the strain on household resources, while boys continue their education during periods of crisis. 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 are likely to 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 extreme climatic events such as floods and drought.
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 there capacities to adapt.
Equity takes into account each individuals unique circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. By placing equity front and centre when designing policies, practices and interventions, adaptation can be made effective and empower all equally. This would make adaptation to climate change a transformative agenda, not just an instrumental act (Cornwall 2015). As the first step in a successful transformation (Farnworth and Colverson, 2015), planners and decision-makers need to understand the underlying drivers of inequity and how they make specific groups such as women, men, poor, ethnic and the disabled vulnerable to climate change. Research on gender and climate adaptation has identified three underlying drivers (Jerneck 2017).
Gendered responsibilities: As climate extremes degrade ecosystems, burdens on women and girls increase, limiting opportunities for education and income generation and increasing exposure to violence — including sexual assaults. As a coping strategy in the face of food scarcity, women are more likely than men to reduce the amount they eat.
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 (UNDP 2015). Growing evidence indicates that gender-specific effects of malaria are felt most acutely by poor, marginalized, and rural young women. Studies have shown that, while the disease burden is greater for adult males, the economic effect is greater for female family members, who face increased pressures to provide food and medicines, as well as a rise in their care-giving responsibilities (Kuile et al., 2004).
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.
Adaptation measures that do not consider drivers of inequality are likely to exacerbate social injustice and inequalities, which in themselves make adaptation less effective or even counterproductive. Initiatives by governments, NGOs, communities etc. that apply an equity lens better enable women, youth and ethnic groups to implement effective adaptation strategies to climate change. Therefore, governments should examine the impacts of climate change through the gender and equity lens to address key barriers to gender-responsive climate actions, and increase the roles that women play in decision-making to close such vulnerability gaps.
Cornwall A, Rivas A-M (2015) From ‘gender equality and ‘women’s empowerment’ to global justice: reclaiming a transformative agenda for gender and development. Third World Q 36(2):396–415
Farnworth C, Colverson K (2015) Building a gender-transformative extension and advisory facilitation system in Africa. J Gend Agric Food Secur 1(1):20–39
Jerneck, A., 2017: Taking gender seriously in climate change adaptation and sustainability science research: views from feminist debates and sub-Saharan small-scale agriculture. Sustain Sci 13, 403–416 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-017-0464-y
Kuile, F.O., et al.,2004: The burden of co-infection with human immunodeficiency virus type 1 and malaria in pregnant women in sub-saharan Africa, American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 2004, 71(Suppl 2):41–54.
SEI 2021: Why gender matters in climate adaptation (https://www.sei.org/perspectives/why-gender-matters-in-climate-adaptation/ last accessed on 25 June 2021)
UNDP Discussion Paper: Gender and Malaria, December 2015 (https://www.ghdonline.org/uploads/Discussion_Paper_Gender_Malaria.pdf . Last accessed on 25 June 2021).