If I told you that women in developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change, I expect you would consider that common sense. When women have limited rights and agency, as is often the case, they are likely to bear more of the brunt of worsening conditions.

But new research suggests that although women are vulnerable to a changing climate, they have the potential to be critically strategic actors in adaptation. This is largely due to their connection to the land: women’s activities often bring them in direct contact with their surrounding environment, meaning that they have skills in knowledge acquisition and dissemination of ecosystem functions.

One example is the different use of trees by women and men. Men often view trees as timber and thus do not consider biodiversity as an important aspect of their natural resource use. Conversely, women make use of trees for multiple domestic ends such as fuel, fodder and shade. A more bio-diverse forest is better in the eyes of a woman looking to clothe, feed and shelter her family. As many stability-diversity studies have shown, a forest with a variety of species also happens to be better for adapting to a changing climate.

Another example arises in livestock-keeping methods in the Sahel. In these harsh, semi-arid grasslands and savannas, women have increasingly taken on what were previously male-dominated roles as livestock herders. Their male counterparts have migrated to look for jobs or left their communities after divorce. The feminization of the role of livestock keeper is reflected in the composition of the herds; women have shifted towards herding smaller ruminants (goats and sheep) and away from climate-sensitive species such as cattle.

This understanding of, and relationship with, natural resources has the potential to make women well suited to lead adaptation efforts in their communities. Unfortunately, with limited roles as decision makers, women instead often have to resort to adaptation strategies such as migration to ensure the safety of their families. Perhaps one answer to promoting adaptation policies is to fund women and improve their status within their communities?

Is vulnerability a short-term challenge that could be ameliorated with the long-term goals of increasing adaptive capacity of impoverished communities through effecting positive change in gender dynamics? Researchers looking into these issues in Lake Faguibine, Mali argue that increasing workloads for women require increasing wages, political influence and access to markets.

“Societal and political change at broader scales is needed to realize potential benefits for women in the long term” (Djoudi and Brockhaus, 2011). And it is hoped that benefits to women will spread to their entire community and beyond.

Written by Claire Havens,
ACT Population Displacement researcher