Gender considerations in climate change and agriculture

Climate & Natural resources,Food Security02 Nov 2010Teresa Fogelberg

Gender issues have so far received little attention in the climate change debate. This despite the fact that 70% of the 1.3 billion people in the developing world living at or below the poverty threshold are women, a majority of which are women farmers.

This blog is part of the blog series about the ‘It’s Down 2 Earth’ conference on agriculture, food security and climate change held in The Hague between 31 October and 5 November 2010. The participants discuss the future of agriculture; how it can contribute to food security and be placed at the heart of sustainable development and poverty eradication – and still be an instrument to challenge climate change?

Climate change will increasingly exacerbate the stresses on the vulnerable and poor – much of which have a gender-differentiated impact. Climate change effects will not be linear and if unchecked, thresholds will be reached whereby the climate vulnerable are tipped into acute poverty. Women and women-headed households will be affected disproportionately.

Gender-aware approaches to climate adaptation that seek to improve women’s adaptive capacity will benefit not just women but the households they are part of and the people they are responsible for. Therefore we need to understand how to improve women’s adaptive capacity and learn how to support women against climate threats.

Gender issues are taken up in debates on climate change and sustainable development in a piecemeal way, extremely slowly, and often as an afterthought.

How do climate change impacts differ across gender?

Literature on vulnerability shows that women are more prone than men to both idiosyncratic (affecting the individual or household) and covariate (affecting localities or nations) stresses. Climate change will exacerbate both types of stresses, thereby affecting women and women-headed households disproportionately.

People’s vulnerability to the hazards of climate change depends on their adaptive capacity, which is determined by wealth, health, knowledge and skills, and access to technology, infrastructure and information. Women often have less access to these resources than men. This increases their vulnerability to climate change, limits their ability to cope with climate shocks and hinders their recovery from such shocks.

Women bear most of the burden in activities that are most impacted by an adverse climate, including the collection of water and firewood, and ensuring daily access to food. In addition, the changing demographics as a result of the impacts of HIV-Aids, male out-migration and population growth are causing women to assume greater responsibilities as sole heads of households and take care of the sick and orphans.

Food, farming and livelihoods

Poverty, population pressures on a limited land resource base, low economic productivity of the land, labour and capital, and extreme weather events due to climate variability, and low capacity to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change make female- and children-headed households, the elderly and women the most vulnerable to climate change. In Malawi it was found that vulnerability is compounded by rapid environmental degradation as a result of agricultural expansion to marginal lands and deforestation, inadequate knowledge and skills in the productive use and management of land and natural resources, inadequate access to land and credit, poor health services and gender inequalities.1

Women who have to find or plant food for their families will find these tasks more difficult to perform if climate change decreases rainfall and increases drought in their home area. Changing weather patterns could affect farming activities such as paddy cultivation in Asia, and cash crops such as cotton and tea, the cultivation of which employs many women.

Climate change induced changes to biodiversity, and natural systems will also affect women. The loss of pollinators, such as butterflies and bees, could seriously affect the agricultural production of fruit, honey, nuts and flowers – important resources for women in their role as providers of food for the family.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has taken note of the gender dimension of climate change. Its Fourth Assessment Report,2 published in 2007, notes that the climate change impacts will differ according to gender.3 It also notes that most studies of climate change impacts tend to group countries or populations together and ignore differences within groups such as gender. The report also points out that as a group women have insufficient capacity to adapt to climate change.4

Unfortunately the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has not used IPCC knowledge to develop plans or take action. Hopefully the Down 2 Earth conference is sufficiently down to earth to develop some concrete measures for women farmers.


    1. Findings of the Malawi National Adaptation Plan of Action.
    2. Available at:
    3. On this point, the report further notes that this happens particularly in developing countries, where gendered cultural expectations persist, such as women undertaking multiple tasks at home, and the ratios of women affected or killed by climate-related disasters to the total population are already higher than in developed nations.
    4. For example, women in subsistence farming communities are disproportionately burdened with the costs of recovery and coping with drought in Southern Africa.