26.11.2019 |

Environmental stress limits women’s ability to adapt to climate change

Women’s ability to adapt to climate change is often hampered (Photo: CC0)

Household poverty and environmental stress can hamper women’s ability to adapt to climate change, new research highlights. According to a study, published in the journal “Nature Climate Change” on November 25, sustainable, equitable and effective adaptation to a warming climate is critical in climate change hotspots in Asia and Africa. However, women’s adaptive capacity is frequently limited. “Our analysis suggests that some common conditions such as male migration and women’s poor working conditions combine with either institutional failure, or poverty, to constrain women’s ability to make choices and decisions,” said lead author Prof Nitya Rao.

The study led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) involved researchers from the UK, Nepal, India, Pakistan and South Africa. The qualitative study draws on data from 25 case studies across climate change hotspots in Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tajikistan) and Africa (Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, Mali, Ethiopia, Senegal). The researchers looked at how and in what ways women’s agency, or ability to make meaningful choices and strategic decisions, contributes to adaptation responses. The study focused on distinct regions which face a range of environmental risks including droughts, floods, rainfall variability, landslides, salinity ingress, coastal erosion and cyclones, among others. Peoples’ livelihoods predominantly depended on agriculture, livestock pastoralism and fishing, supplemented by wage labour, petty trade or business, and income from remittances. The scientists found that environmental stress was a key depressor of women’s agency. “Even when household structures and social norms are supportive, or legal entitlements are available, environmental stress contributes to intensifying exclusionary mechanisms, leading to household strategies that place increasing responsibilities and burdens on women, especially those who are young, less educated and belong to lower classes, or marginal castes and ethnicities,” they wrote in the article.

“Male migration has been seen as an adaptation strategy for climate change - but from a gender perspective, it is not helping in household maintenance and survival,” Prof Rao told Reuters. “Male migration does contribute to enhanced incomes, but the degree of such support is both uncertain and irregular,” the authors write. “Confronted with issues of everyday survival, in the absence of supportive infrastructure and services, women often work harder, in poorer conditions and for lower wages across the hotspots studied.” In one case study, in the Dera Ghazi Khan District of Pakistan, monsoon rains and floods destroyed the cotton crop. As a young woman noted, “Men can easily migrate for work whereas we have to stay here (at home) to take care of the family. After floods, my daily wage decreased from Rs. 200 ($1.62) per bale of cotton to Rs. 75 ($0.61).” With reduced male labour in the rural areas, feminization of agriculture was common but not always improved women’s agency. “In a sense, women do have voice and agency, as they are actively engaging in both production and reproduction, yet this is not contributing to strengthening longer-term adaptive capacities, or indeed their wellbeing,” Prof. Rao added. It can even result in poor health and nutrition, the authors warn. In semi-arid Kenya, when men moved away with livestock, women lost control over milk for consumption and sale, and had to work harder to provide nutritious food for their children. As a woman with two young children said: “I manage the shop, cook and look after the children. I have no help.”

We need to strengthen the adaptive capacities of women and enable more effective adaptation to climate change, the study concludes. The authors suggest that, firstly, effective social protection, such as the universal public distribution system for cereals in India, or pensions and social grants in Namibia, can contribute to relieving immediate pressures on survival. Secondly, such universal benefits can support processes that strengthen collective action at the community level. However, investments are needed to enable better and more sustainable management of resources. “Women’s Self Help Groups are often presented as solutions, yet they are confronted by the lack of resources, skills and capacity to help their members effectively meet the challenges they confront,” the authors caution. They add that competitive markets are not working to strengthen women’s agency. “There appears to be a clear case for regulating labour markets to ensure decent work, whether for women or migrant men, but this is proving difficult in a globalised context,” said Prof Rao. (ab)

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