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Addressing gender inequalities and strengthening women's agency to create more climate-resilient and sustainable food systems

Image of a woman holding her son's hand while walking through a rice paddy. Photo by Mi Pham via Unsplash.

This article focuses on the impact of gender inequality on women’s vulnerability, resilience and response to  climate change impacts. The researchers explore how patriarchal norms limit women’s access to climate-smart adaptation strategies and how policies targeted at climate action fail to overcome this structural inequality.

Patriarchal norms persist in many societies, shaping their response to climate change. Within a gendered hierarchy, women face limited access to agricultural or financial resources and little power in decision-making processes.The authors find that systemic inequality influences coping mechanisms, adaptation strategies, and vulnerability to climate change outcomes. The review concludes that policies in the context of climate action often overlook gender disparities and fail to strengthen women’s agency. 

As the body of literature on the intersection of gender and climate expands, this paper reviews the impact of gender-related inequalities on their responses, resilience, and adaptation to climate change. The review includes papers from all continents, but most case studies draw from experiences in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It identifies five dimensions in which women respond differently to climate risks and disturbances due to gender-related discrimination, resulting in differentiated consequences for their welfare:

  1. Gender differences in exposure and sensitivity to shocks and stressors
  2. Differential resilience and adaptive capacities of men and women
  3. Gendered preferences for and uptake of climate change responses 
  4. The level of gender integration in the design and implementation of policies, investments and interventions, and participation in decision-making and leadership
  5. Differential outcomes of climate change as a result of climate disturbances and the chosen responses at multiple scales

The authors highlight within those dimensions how gender impacts the exposure and sensitivity to climate change from the bottom up. Patriarchal norms act as a constraining force by limiting womens’ access to and control over land, agricultural inputs, assets and climate-smart technologies. Furthermore, this gendered inequality leads to limited access to social networks, economic opportunities, decision-making processes and information services, further restricting the agency of women within their communities. Due to societal norms dictating what is and is not appropriate for women, their value in farming and food security is chronically underestimated. 

These disparities lead to women responding differently to climate change impacts. They constrain women's ability to advocate for their preferred response to these challenges, despite having distinct needs and priorities. Gender-related inequality leads to a reduced ability to adapt to climate change in general, due to women’s restricted access to finances and transport and because of societal norms around the distribution of labour. These factors  prompt them to adopt short-term coping measures rather than develop medium-to-long-term adaptive strategies, further increasing their vulnerability. 

Intersectional factors, such as education, age, marital status, and socioeconomic status further influence women's responses to climate change. In a study on migration behaviour in South Asia, wealthier households adapted to climate change by migrating to enhance their resilience, while for resource-poor households, migration was a necessity in response to adverse climate events where alternative coping strategies were unavailable. However, women are, independent of their economic status, less able to migrate due to socio-cultural norms.

The authors highlight how this gender gap is evident through the absence of policies, investments, and interventions that take gender inequalities into account, coupled with a lack of women's leadership in policy-making spheres. The reviewed literature strongly indicates that climate policies often overlook gender considerations at multiple levels and only show slow integration of gender equality, depicting women primarily as  victims rather than drivers of change, further exacerbating gender inequalities. Policy stakeholders often lack the capacity to incorporate gender into climate adaptation efforts, failing to address structural inequalities and neglecting the gender equity implications of mitigation interventions. 

Potential approaches to overcome gender-related inequality include information services designed to women’s needs, the introduction of inclusive financial products and policies that acknowledge gender disparities and support women’s agency within climate action. Deeper structural change is required, involving the integration of approaches that overcome institutional gender barriers in climate programs and address the social norms perpetuating gender inequalities.

Climate change affects every aspect of the food system, including all nodes along agri-food value chains from production to consumption, the food environments in which people live, and outcomes, such as diets and livelihoods. Men and women often have specific roles and responsibilities within food systems, yet structural inequalities (formal and informal) limit women's access to resources, services, and agency. These inequalities affect the ways in which men and women experience and are affected by climate change. In addition to gender, other social factors are at play, such as age, education, marital status, and health and economic conditions. To date, most climate change policies, investments, and interventions do not adequately integrate gender. If climate-smart and climate-resilient interventions do not adequately take gender differences into account, they might exacerbate gender inequalities in food systems by, for instance, increasing women's labour burden and time poverty, reducing their access to and control over income and assets, and reducing their decision-making power. At the same time, women's contributions are critical to make food systems more resilient to the negative impacts of climate change, given their specialized knowledge, skills and roles in agri-food systems, within the household, at work and in their communities. Increasing the resilience of food systems requires going beyond addressing gendered vulnerabilities to climate change to create an enabling environment that supports gender equality and women's empowerment, by removing structural barriers and rigid gender norms, and building equal power dynamics, as part of a process of gender transformative change. For this to happen, more research is needed to prioritize structural barriers that need to be removed and to identify effective gender transformative approaches.

Bryan, E., Alvi, M., Huyer, S., & Ringler, C. (2024). Addressing gender inequalities and strengthening women's agency to create more climate-resilient and sustainable food systems. Global Food Security, 40, 100731. 

Read the full article here. And read our essay on women’s empowerment in agriculture  Aid, structural reforms or empowerment: Assessing diverse interventions to abate food crises in Southern Africa.

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