Virginie Le Masson argues that paying that attention to gender differences matters
What does gender have to do with climate change? It’s a question I often hear when engaging with practitioners and policymakers. I am a researcher who advocates for attention to gender to be integrated in efforts to address climate change – in climate change mitigation, in strategies to adapt to climate impacts, and in negotiations towards a global climate change agreement.
To answer that question, I tend to avoid using the mainstream argument that women are more vulnerable to climate change than men. Many studies have documented that women are part of households and relationships from which they cannot necessarily be separated. Whatever impacts women will also impact those around them, albeit in different ways. This is why we must work on gender relations, rather than on women only.
Instead, I show that men and women across societies have different roles and perspectives, which make their relation with their environment unique. For instance, while conducting research in the Himalayan province of Ladakh in India, I realized that when asking local villagers questions concerning water access, I received very different answers from women compared to those that my male research colleague received from men that he interviewed.
People in Ladakh rely on water from glaciers and melted-snow for daily consumption and irrigation. Changes in temperatures, combined with increased demand for limited water resources, make water availability fluctuate dramatically.
At one particular site, men did not raise any concerns about access water, yet almost all the women I interviewed said that availability and access to water is one of their main daily challenges. Women are responsible for fetching water and for irrigating fields, and therefore they have first-hand knowledge of the availability of water and how climate change is impacting this resource.
Differences in roles and status, and the socio-economic context in which people live, also affect their different abilities to cope with extreme weather events. As part of other research in India, I talked to inhabitants of a low-income urban area in Gorakhpur, in the eastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, about how they cope with regular floods. Those who rely on growing and selling crops as their main source of income develop strategies to adapt to recurrent flooding. For instance, women farmers grow climbing beans or cucumbers on long sticks so that their crops are not destroyed even when flood waters up to two metres deep inundate fields for several weeks. In parallel, men selling food or clothes use a small cartwheel in order to place their business in strategic locations, safe from hazards, and to follow the crowd at different moments of the day.
However, those strategies might be disrupted when people suffer from health problems that restrict their physical ability to look after their garden or go to the market, particularly when they do not benefit from social security from the state. In order to cope with the loss of income, people take out loans that they can only pay back by selling their main asset, which is often their plot of land. This is when gender becomes a key analytical lens.
Although women are the primary users of the land to cultivate crops, men are those owning the title of the land and therefore they decide if and for how much they want to sell it. In a context of poverty, owners – therefore men – are pressured by real estate corporations to sell their land at a cheap price, often bribed with gifts in kind, such as alcohol. A study by the World Health Organisation states that alcohol abuse is one of the main killers of young men in India, and has severe repercussions on the social and family dynamics (e.g. domestic violence) and economic resources (e.g. reduced wages, increased medical expenses, loss of assets).
There are countless other examples showing that attention to gender differences matters when working on disaster risk reduction and adaptation to climate change, and this is also true for climate change mitigation. The European Institute for Gender Equality reports that women and men living in Europe contribute differently to greenhouse gases. For instance, its 2012 study shows that more women use public transport but that men tend to be more conscious about purchasing energy-efficient cars. Women also more often declare themselves willing to choose low-carbon practices and make changes in their everyday lifestyles, like choosing a cleaner power supply.
Attention to gender and gender relations helps us understand how differences in access to resources and power between men and women influence how populations interact and care for their environment. Gender constructions – such as social norms, traditions and cultural aspects of the societies we grow up in – influence who we are, how we interact with each other and what roles we are supposed or able to play in our societies.
I believe that only when we seriously listen to and integrate the perspectives of those we rarely hear from can we reconcile development progress and the imperative to care for the environment.
Beyond the question of gender differences is the issue of gender equality and access to power. Tackling gender inequalities is necessary to achieve sustainable development (not to mention to respect basic human rights), and vice versa.
Only when we recognize differences but challenge inequalities can we ensure that those who suffer from discriminatory laws or unfair economic practices will not further suffer from the adverse impacts of climate change. Only when we confront gender imbalances can we create an enabling environment for those traditionally excluded from power positions, to participate equally in making decisions and creating policies that will affect their lives positively.
– Virginie Le Masson is a Research Officer working for the Social Development and Climate and Environment programmes at the Overseas Development Institute, London. She is also the gender focal point for the Climate and Development Knowledge Network. Her research focuses on the gender dimension of disaster risk reduction and climate change mitigation and adaptation. She is co-editing a book, Understanding Climate Change through Gender Relations, for Routledge, to be published in 2016.