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Climate change as a threat to achieving sustainable development has gained prominence in the global political agenda. Within this, the interaction of climate change policy with areas such as transport, water, agriculture and energy has gained much traction. However, areas such as gender, and its relationship to climate change, remain unclear and are still largely excluded from climate debates. Regardless, the increasing attention afforded to climate change opens opportunities which enable gender issues to be mainstreamed into all aspects of the sustainable development agenda. Unfortunately, with development priorities such as health and poverty alleviation taking centre stage, climate change tends to fall behind on the priority list; this, despite many countries on the African continent being extremely vulnerable to its impacts.
This introductory article frames gender within a climate change perspective and aims to contribute to the growing body of knowledge on this emerging topic. The article begins by briefly connecting climate change to sustainable development from an African perspective, with specific examples from Malawi. It then unpacks what gender means for climate change policy.
Climate change in the context of Africa’s sustainable development
For many African states, climate change has shifted from an environmental challenge to a developmental problem. Even then, in the context of other problems, it is not an urgent matter, in part due to the historical difficulty in connecting climate change to sustainable development. Changes in climate culminating in droughts, floods and heavy rainfall are not unusual. What is new about climate change is knowledge of its causes, and the scale and speed of change.(2)
According to Article 1 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC),climate change is “attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.”(3) In itself climate change poses an enormous environmental threat, but it does not occur in a vacuum, it interacts with, and poses additional (mostly adverse) consequences, for all sectors of the economy. With that said, human action has been identified as a contributor to climate change meaning that the current development model and manner in which human beings interact with the environment is a cause of climate change. For countries to lift themselves out of poverty, development will have to be done differently and inclusively.
Apart from climate change, gender is another crucial cross-cutting development concern of this decade. Where gender is about the socio-political relationship between male and female roles and identities, climate change is an unfolding debate that cuts across development, environment and engineering. Gender interacts intimately with impact, responses and outcomes of all programme and policy responses because gender organises the household, community, and the world. Climate change on the other hand takes place against the backdrop of pressing social matters such as conflict, public health and poverty. It manifests itself in the form of sporadic weather patterns such as the shifts in rainfall patterns and frequency, tornados and droughts. To determine specific effects per region or country is challenging for the continent because climate change data are lacking (and so too is data on gender). Nevertheless reports from media,(4) state and non state institutions indicate that many countries are struggling to cope with weather variability resulting from changing climatic conditions. The impacts of climate change through interaction with development issues are felt particularly as an exacerbation of existing stresses and vulnerabilities.
For example, in Malawi, where 29% of people live in extreme poverty and are largely rural dwellers, research conducted by Oxfam International in 2009, found that in some parts of the country women have largely been affected in terms of fetching water. Rivers dry up quicker leaving women to walk longer distances to fetch water. Another scenario drawn from Malawi pertaining to water is the influence of erratic rainfall patterns which in turn have upset planting seasons.(5) The situation is not unique to Malawi; similar concerns are abundant across the continent. The interconnectedness of livelihoods to the natural environment makes the continent extremely vulnerable to impacts of a changing climate. The concept of vulnerability underpins scientific and policy analysis on climate change. Vulnerability captures the notion of possible loss, damage, and impact; of threat, risk, and stress; of uncertainty and insecurity; of a lack of power and control; and of a number of other factors that contribute to a feeling or state of being vulnerable.(6)
Africa’s vulnerability is located against the backdrop of overriding poverty which manifests itself in the form of multiple stresses such as unequal access to resources, food insecurity, the disease burden of malaria and HIV/AIDS, as well as current climatic exposure. A changing climate, particularly characterised by sporadic weather conditions, prolonged drought and flooding is one of the most serious threats to the continent’s agricultural sector and a major precursor to future food insecurity. From a statistical standpoint, women will be most adversely impacted by changes in agricultural yields. This is because they produce 80% of the basic foodstuffs both for consumption and sale in sub-Saharan Africa.(7) In countries such as Malawi, 85% of women are primarily involved in subsistence agriculture.(8) Moreover, the prevailing stereotype of rural agrarian communities which assumes that men are the main decision makers in their capacity as ‘heads of households’ is changing due to a rise in the number of female-headed households for reasons such as (male) migration to the cities in search of work and the increase in widows due to HIV/AIDS.
Climate change and gender: Connecting the dots
Although research on the nexus between gender and climate change is increasing, there is strong focus on food security, agriculture and water in particular. In sectors where the differing impacts on women and men are not directly evident, including infrastructure, energy, innovation and technology, more work needs to be done. It has been asserted that poorer nations and disadvantaged groups within wealthier nations may be especially vulnerable to climate change.(9) These disadvantaged groups are often women, children and the elderly. Moreover, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report recognises that gender relations influence vulnerability and adaptation capacity. Gendered vulnerability to climate change can also be determined by equality of agency, defined as the concept where different circumstances and characteristics of men and women have to be considered to avoid unfair gender-related outcomes.(10) In the instance of climate change impact and adaption, the conditions under which strategic life choices are made is based on gender-related opportunities availed to people. Therefore policies relating the environment and climate change should consider these gendered implications. However, despite this, the gap between gender policies and actual practice in climate change policy formulation will continue to exist for a number of reasons, including:
However, the above challenges should not deter gender sensitive policy making. Instead, this knowledge should be factored into existing policy processes to strengthen gains in gender equality in other arena such as political participation, maternal health and education.
For the purposes of this article, gender will be considered from a two dimensional perspective. Firstly, located within the development paradigm, it is an analytical variable used to examine how policies and/or projects impact men and women differently. Secondly, gender describes the social relations between men and women (as well as between men and men, women and women, and anyone who does not fit into these two narrowly defined categories) and the manner with which these are socially constructed. It acknowledges that social relations are context specific and dynamic, often changing in response to altering circumstances. In itself gender is not a binary condition. It is reinforced by age, class, marital status, poverty and geographic location (urban/rural). Although gender is about the interactions between men and women as dictated by culture, tradition and class, there is a slant towards women because they constitute the majority of the poor.(11) Globally, research indicates that where circumstances are similar between women and men, women are generally disadvantaged, due to limited access and control over resources. Gender is not about women suffering more than men (in numbers and/or in intensity), but rather about how gender would differentiate the social processes leading to and coping with poverty as well as pathways out,(12) in the face of a changing climate. Interventions that can strengthen the position of poor (or rural) men will not necessarily have the same impact on poor (or rural) women.
The above comprehensive definition of gender allows us to conclude that gender-differentiated effects of climate change arise not from climate change itself, but from the gender-based activities at household, community, and even state levels. For instance, in the face of a flood, every member of a community will experience the impact differently because of their position and the privileges associated therewith (whether these are class, gender or other ‘categorical’ social privileges).
Climate change is often presented in a technical manner; so much so that international policy interventions focus on energy to reduce green house gasses. This technical presentation makes finding entry points with which to introduce gender a challenge. So far, policy measures have displayed inadequate consideration for the social implications of climate change for the poor or for the ways in which people’s political and economic environments influence their ability to respond to the threats and outcomes thereof.(13) The diagram below illustrates that the daily (mundane) chores women perform are extremely important yet policy interventions often ‘speak above the problem.’
In recognition of the danger of focusing exclusively on women’s vulnerability, this article encourages the promotion of women’s equal role in fighting climate change. Therefore, each group has to be recognised as an agent of change. Since climate change policy formulation is in its infancy, the potential to mainstream gender at the onset of policy designs is feasible and highly recommended.
Climate change and gender (Fig 1)
Relationship among climate change impact, gender and the sustainability of development (14)
In order to analyse the impacts of climate change on development processes, or even economic sectors, there is the need to distinguish between women and men to ensure both groups benefit from policy interventions. This article notes that gender is an important differentiator and should not continue to be bypassed in policy and decision making. This information should play a crucial role in shaping the policy space as decision makers and practitioners alike are illuminating the greater susceptibility of women to the effects of climate change in comparison to men. It should be highlighted that since women and men play different roles in the household and society, they are exposed to differing levels of vulnerability. If development is to be attained and sustained, women have to be at the helm of all interventions and responses. Both rural and urban poor women on the continent are often dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, as they bear responsibility for most of the agricultural production as well as for water and fuel collection. With the rise in HIV/AIDS, women are also primary home based carers. As such, coping with and adapting to climatic changes, their respective roles and contributions in these areas need to be enhanced and supported.
Written by Anesu Makina (1)
(1) Contact Anesu Makina through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) Terry, G., 2009. No climate justice without gender justice: An overview of the issues. Gender and Development, 17(1), pp. 5-18.
(3) ‘Article 1’, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, http://www.unfccc.int.
(4) Lupick, T. and Kasakura, A., ‘Malawi bears the brunt of climate change’, The Africa Report, 5 March 2012, http://www.theafricareport.com; Vidal, J., ‘Climate change will devastate Africa, top UK scientist warns’, The Guardian, 28 October 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk; Tadesse, D., 2010. The impact of climate change in Africa. ISS Paper 220, November 2010.
(5) ‘The winds of change: Climate change, poverty and the environment in Malawi’, Oxfam International 2009, http://www.oxfam.org .
(6) Klein, R.J.T., ‘Measuring Vulnerability to Climate Change: An Academic or a Political Challenge?’, Kyoto Sustainability Initiative seminar ‘Mitigation of Adaptation to Climate Change’, Kyoto, Japan, 2008; Eriksen, S. and Næss, L.-O., ‘Pro-poor climate adaptation: Norwegian development cooperation and climate change adaptation: An assessment of issues, strategies and potential entry points’, CICERO Report 2003:02, Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research, 2003.
(7) ‘World development report 2008: Agriculture for development’, World Bank, 2008.
(8) ‘Malawi poverty and vulnerability assessment (PVA): Investing in our future’, Synthesis report: Main findings and recommendations, Poverty Reduction and Economic Management 1, Report 36546-MW, World Bank, 2007.
(9) Munasinghe, M., 2002 ‘Analysing the nexus of sustainable development and climate change: An overview’, OECD, http://www.oecd.org.
(10) Kabeer, N., 2003. Gender mainstreaming in poverty eradication and the millennium development goals a handbook for policy-makers and other stakeholders. Commonwealth Secretariat, Canadian International Development Agency, International Development Research Centre: London, United Kingdom.
(11) From a development perspective, gender is a euphemism for women because women constitute the majority of the poor. Onereason why development efforts have failed to alleviate poverty is because they tend to focus on men, yet the majority of the poor are women.
(12) Razavi, S., ‘Gendered poverty and social change: An issues paper’, UNRISD Discussion Paper 94, 1998.
(13) Macgregor. S., 2010. ‘Gender and climate change’: From impacts to discourses. Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, 6(2), pp. 223-238.
(14) Authors’ own.