Climate change affects everyone, but it does not affect everyone equally. A growing body of evidence shows that men and women suffer different negative health consequences and employ gender-differentiated coping mechanisms in the face of climate change. Men suffer psychological, economic and social strain. However, women remain disproportionately affected, and for poor women in less developed countries, climate change can impact nearly ever facet of their lives.
Climate change has been linked to an increase in extreme weather events, from droughts to floods. The World Health Organization’s report Gender, Climate Change and Health (2011) finds that vulnerability varies by sex. Due to a wide range of socioeconomic and cultural factors, including limited mobility and less access to information, women are on average 14 times more likely to die in a natural disaster than men. In the 2004 Asian Tsunami, 70-80% of those who died were women. Women and girls are also more likely to suffer food shortages following natural disasters than their male counterparts (World Food Programme, 2011). Among men, because of their traditional roles as economic providers for their families, weather events that result in loss of income or indebtedness can cause considerable stress. Prolonged drought has been linked with mental illness, depression, and even increased suicide rates among men (WHO, 2011).
Though these cataclysmic events may be more dramatic, the long-term but more gradual shifts due to climate change also have a severe impact on women and their day-to-day lives. Men are more likely to cope with loss of economic opportunities through migration, which can increase their social isolation. Men’s migration, in turn, increases the labor burden for women, particularly for those who are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods (WHO, 2011). In many areas of the world, traditional sources of water and fuel are changing or disappearing. Women are tasked with traveling further and further to find these resources, often at great personal risk. Furthermore, with more time required to complete basic household chores, there is often less opportunity for girls to attend school. Less access to water also impacts sanitation and hygiene efforts, and may leave women and their families more vulnerable to disease.
These same climate shifts that affect access to water or fuel can also adversely affect crop production, leading to a decrease in the quantity and quality of nutritious food available to women and their families. This can be particularly harmful to pregnant women. Around half of all pregnant women in developing countries are anemic, and iron deficiency causes nearly 20 percent of all global maternal mortality. Malnourished mothers are also at a higher risk of giving birth to underweight babies, who are more than 20 percent more likely to die before the age of five. Those that survive are often more susceptible to compromised cognitive function and physical development. Female babies who were born underweight are more likely to grow up to be undernourished women who then give birth to their own low birth weight children. Anemia and vitamin A deficiencies can also be entirely treatable if only women have access to more diverse and nutritious diets (Tirado, 2010).
In developing long-term, effective adaptation and mitigation strategies it will be crucial to consider the different ways men and women cope with climate change. Though women can be powerful actors of positive change, their contributions are often undervalued. There is great need for holistic and gendered approaches to climate change adaptation and mitigation that incorporate both men’s and women’s expertise and utilize their unique roles in agriculture and family life. Climate change affects everyone. Everyone should be part of the solution.
Tirado, M.C., Cohen, M.J., Aberman, N., Meerman, J., Thompson, B. (2010). Addressing the challenges of climate change and biofuel production for food and nutrition security. Food Research International 43 (2010) 1729-1744
World Food Programme (2011). “Women and Hunger, 10 Facts.”
World Health Organization (2011). Gender, Climate Change and Health.