Why Climate Change Needs A Feminist Approach – OpEd


As the world digests the confused legacy of the COP28 summit in the United Arab Emirates, and the fervour surrounding discussions on phasing out fossil fuels begins to wane, it is crucial to acknowledge the harsh realities faced by those at the forefront of the climate crisis.

A less publicized outcome of the COP28 summit was the introduction of the Gender-Responsive Just Transitions & Climate Action Partnership as part of the conference’s Gender Equality Day. More than 60 states endorsed this intrinsic link between gender equality and sustainable solutions. Earlier in the summit, UN Women released a report, predicting that by 2050, climate change may push up to 158 million more women and girls into poverty and see 236 million more face food insecurity.

This leads us to a question that has largely remained unanswered: Should a feminist approach be adopted to tackle the climate change crisis? Empirical evidence demonstrates how climate change exacerbates socio-economic inequality, disproportionately impacting the lives of women. The multifaceted effects of climate change on women’s lives are evident. Factors such as women’s unequal participation in decision-making processes and labor markets, coupled with entrenched social norms that relegate women to the background, often hinder their involvement in climate-related planning and policymaking. Moreover, the scarcity of gender-segregated data impedes thorough assessments of the gender dimension of climate change.

A coherent and equitable vision for climate action and justice necessitates the integration of a feminist perspective. With increase research and evidences, we know there exists a clear correlation between gender inequality and vulnerability to climate change. A report by United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) states gender inequality contributes to heightened biophysical and social vulnerability in women and lesser adaptive capacity compared to men. When climate change is researched from a gender perspective, the stakes of the boundaries go beyond economics to encompass social and cultural hierarchy, societal and familial roles, health, and even behaviour. 

Women’s vulnerability to climate variability is rooted in gender-based cultural norms, household responsibilities, inaccessibility to assets and resources, and lack of information and suitable technology. And thus, without a feminist approach that scrutinizes climate vulnerability and subsequent adaptation from the lens of rights and social justice, a just transition towards a sustainable future becomes a formidable challenge. 

Climate change is acknowledged for exacerbating the burden of unpaid labour on women. The pre-existing responsibility of unpaid family care becomes more onerous during periods of escalating food prices resulting from poor harvests or when healthcare needs surge amidst rising temperatures. Girls are more likely to drop out of schools, and even leading to increase in incidents of violence, child marriages, and even human trafficking. 

Recognizing the intricate interplay between climate change and its disproportionate impact on women, it becomes imperative to acknowledge women’s rights, labour, and knowledge in the formulation of climate change adaptation plans. A feminist approach to climate change is pivotal in ensuring that the specific needs and rights of women are seamlessly integrated into policies and planning for climate change adaptation.

An integral facet of a feminist approach to climate change involves the deliberate redistribution of resources towards women’s needs, fostering their economic and social well-being, and enhancing their resilience in the face of climate challenges. It is essential to realize that women are also the first responders to any climate change disaster, especially with their increased role as caregivers at household-level behavioural changes and planning. 

Publicly financed social protection initiatives should acknowledge and act upon this principle, facilitating the redistribution of social and economic resources to empower and uplift women in the planning for climate change adaptation. The outcomes of such redistribution efforts have demonstrated tangible socio-economic benefits.  As per available data by UNFCCC, when women have equal access to resources as men, there was recorded a noteworthy increase in agricultural yields by 20-30 percent, consequently leading to a 2.5 to 4 percent improvement in total agricultural output. This alone has the potential to substantially reduce global food insecurity by 12-15 percent. 

But climate change induced social changes do also bring us to a unique situation of ‘feminization of responsibility’. The theory brings to fore situation where feminization of efforts results in exacerbating women’s burdens. There’s another perspective to it. One aspect of this phenomenon is the rising trend of seasonal and distress migration among vulnerable communities. Typically, men within households migrate in search of improved livelihood opportunities as climate change jeopardizes traditional livelihoods, such as agriculture, in their home regions. In these situations, the entire responsibility of managing the household and sustaining livelihoods falls squarely on the shoulders of women.

This shift in responsibilities not only places additional burdens on women but also underscores the need for a comprehensive and gender-sensitive approach to climate change adaptation. A holistic understanding of the ‘feminization of responsibility’ can guide initiatives to provide targeted support for women who find themselves at the forefront of climate-induced challenges. 

This also makes it imperative that women’s voices are heard, and they are involved in planning for adaptation at all levels. Currently, there is a significant underrepresentation of women in environmental planning fora at all levels. Even in UN COP climate conferences, the numbers are indicative of a persistent gender gap — the proportion of delegations headed by women has remained stagnant at around 20 percent, with overall participation hovering around 35 percent. At community level women continue to face gender-based obstacles to recognition of their leadership. 

Climate change indeed is far from gender-neutral, as it disproportionately burdens women across social and economic boundaries. The prevailing inequalities and inequities exacerbate these challenges. Paradoxically, despite being more adversely affected, women often find themselves on the front lines as the primary caregivers, becoming the first line of defence against climate-induced dangers. 

It is thus, very pivotal to make efforts to actively dismantle barriers that limit women’s participation, fostering an environment where their contributions are acknowledged and valued. By amplifying women’s voices and involving them in decision-making processes, we can not only enhance the quality of climate policies but also promote a more equitable and just response to the challenges posed by climate change. Empowering women, and including their voices in the face of climate change is not just an ethical imperative but a strategic one. It will allow for understanding of multifaceted impacts of climate change, and creating more just, inclusive, and comprehensive solutions. 

Aakash Mehrotra

Aakash Mehrotra is a novelist, blogger, and consultant in international development working in South Asia and Africa.

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