Women and climate change: another special relationship?

It is commonly argued that women undertake the bulk of the work in agriculture, fisheries and livestock keeping, and as a consequence are particularly knowledgeable about the natural resource base. This is the basis of the idea that African rural women have a special relationship with the natural environment. It is often suggested that rural women can act and take decisions independently – and indeed, increase their agricultural productivity and engage with new market opportunities – as long as they are given adequate external support.

Women and climate

After ‘women and agriculture’, ‘women and the environment’, ‘women and biodiversity’ and the like, we should perhaps not be surprised that the spotlight has now moved to ‘women and climate change’.

In general, the suggestion is that women are more vulnerable than men to climate change because of their greater dependence on natural resources, and their (often) indirect and informal claims over these resources. Including women in climate change programmes (e.g. REDD+) is expected to help them to achieve food and nutrition security through increased productivity but also through income gained from sales of environmental credits they may gain from adopting carbon-saving practices.[1] As a consequence, their status in their families and communities, or at least in their development groups, will be enhanced. The term ‘empowerment’ and (especially more recently) ‘economic empowerment’ is used to describe both their (new?) decision making power, and this improved status.

Where do the narratives come from?

The special relationship between gender (read: women) and climate change is constructed from well-established narratives linking gender and environment on the one hand, and gender and agriculture on the other. These narratives are themselves highly problematic: nevertheless they have proved to be highly resilient and continue to influence policy in these domains.

In compounding these narratives, long and complex chains of explanations that rely on assumptions and claims that can hardly be demonstrated, are created.

We might be inclined to dismiss these as simple political constructs even though they suggest that social and related institutional change is a straightforward, if not linear, process. However, if they fit the agenda of development agencies, they are likely to be repeated, and used to include women instrumentally in agency programmes simply to achieve international, national and internal targets.

Specifically, in terms of the way in which gender issues are defined, and addressed in projects (i.e. project ‘entry points’ determined and used), it is evidence derived from sex-disaggregated data that is used. Invariably these data have shown that women work longer hours on farms than men, and exercise less control over land, labour, credit in addition to other production resources than men, and over the output itself. These differences between individual women and men (frequently referred to as ‘gaps’) are interpreted as unfair, disadvantage women by limiting their productive capacity.

The problem with gender ‘gaps’

But are these conclusions valid? Do they rely on an overly simple interpretation of the data that, taken in isolation from other information about the lives of the men and women concerned, suggests unfairness and inequity? Do they reliably reflect ‘work’ undertaken, or do they ignore other kinds of ‘work’? (Jackson 2007; Jackson and Palmer-Jones[2]) Do individual men have any more ‘control’ over land than individual women? Are we over-stating the level of control that individuals in many situations in rural Africa have over resources? What are the constraints on women and on men that limit their agricultural productivity?

In asking questions such as these, I am suggesting that these sex-disaggregated data in themselves tell us little about reality. They support a focus on individual lives and livelihoods, and take us down pathways that homogenise gender discourse and avenues for transformative change.

A lesson: complex relationships

It is time to re-socialise gender policies. For real progress to be made towards gender equity and transforming gender relations across a range of institutions, policies must build on a more realistic understanding of the lives of women and men and their complex and changing relationships.

In small-scale fisheries, for example, this means acknowledging gender relations between “boat owners, fish processors and sellers who are also wives, husbands, community members, and co-workers”[3], as one FAO report puts it; and looking at the role of social norms and values in constraining (or, in some cases, supporting) behavioural change and limiting the resilience of many women, but also of many men.

Narrowly framed strategies are not ideal starting points for adapting to change. Projects with such strategies are unlikely to enhance the capacity of, for instance, small-scale fishing communities to adapt to climate change. A strategy which promotes gender-aware solutions that are fish-specific, focused especially on women characterised as vulnerable – and which ignores the existing evidence of the capacity of individuals and communities involved in fisheries to deal with livelihood threats – is unlikely to succeed.

What is the alternative?

Strategies will have more chance of success if they take into account both the complexity of livelihoods, and the social and economic dynamics, in small-scale fishing communities. They should also consider some related entry points into policy: for example, livelihood security in fisheries, gender-related vulnerabilities, and the ability of men and women together and/or separately to adapt to changes in their environment.

In relation to placing rural women centrally in climate change policy, two key questions for policy might be:

  1. Given the importance of wider social relations in the lives of individuals, can the focus be on women alone?
  2. What trade-offs are women likely to have to make with others in order to participate in policies designed to meet their needs (not necessarily their interests); and for their participation to benefit them?

Christine Okali convenes the Gender and Social Difference theme of Future Agricultures.

Image: Fishing community members, Zambia from theworldfishcenter’s Flickr photostream (by-nc-nd)

Further reading


[1] The complexity of these arrangements on the ground is detailed by Joanes Atela in a recent study of the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project. The international finance arrangements for these exchanges between local populations and international carbon markets are detailed in the report BioCarbon Fund Experience; Insights from Afforestation and Reforestation Clean Development Mechanism Projects, by the Carbon Finance Unit of the World Bank.

[2] Palmer-Jones, Richard and Jackson, Cecile, 1997. ‘Work Intensity, Gender and Sustainable DevelopmentFood Policy, 22(1): 39-62 and Jackson, Cecile, 2000, ‘Men at work‘, The European Journal o Development Research, 12:2, 1 – 22

[3] FAO. 2006. Gender policies for responsible fisheries – Policies to support gender equity and livelihoods in small-scale fisheries – available from the FAO website