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Gender and Climate Change

Emergent Issues for Research, Policy and Practice

Nitya Rao ( teaches gender and development at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, Norwich. Asha Hans ( is former director of the School of Women’s Studies, Utkal University, Odisha.


Climate change is transforming countries the world over. India’s geographical location and agrarian economy is making it increasingly sensitive to climate change, intensifying and making more unpredictable the risks confronting people’s lives and livelihoods. Extreme weather conditions, ranging from floods to heatwaves and weak monsoons to unseasonal rains, are responsible for placing India fourth in the list of the 10 most affected countries globally on the Global Climate Risk Index (Sönke et al 2016: 7). The Indian National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) notes that the impacts of climate change could prove particularly severe for women (MoEF 2008). This issue of the Review of Women’s Studies seeks to explore the significance of this policy statement through a set of contextually embedded and gendered experiences of coping and adapting to varied manifestations of climate change.

Even though research and policy are often framed in terms of climate change impacts alone, our starting point for this analysis is the recognition that climate change aggravates pre-existing socio-economic vulnerabilities and risks, which the poor confront in their daily lives (Field et al 2014). Such “contextual vulnerability is based on a processual and multidimensional view of climate-society interactions” (O’Brien et al 2007: 76). Increasing scarcity of water and reduction in yields of forest biomass, for instance, result from climatic factors, but equally from policy incentives and signals that have encouraged their rapid exploitation and degradation. Whatever be the specific drivers, these changes are likely to have gendered effects, as women across social groups in rural households bear the primary responsibility for water collection and use, as well as biomass collection for cooking (Divya Susan Solomon and Nitya Rao, p 38; Dev Nathan, Manjula M, R Rengalakshmi and Govind Kelkar, p 79).

Social Identity and Climate Vulnerability

There is growing recognition in research on climate change that both perceptions of risk and its impacts on people are associated with social position and identity, in particular, gender, although other factors like class, caste/ethnicity and age are also important. In the Indian context, the Scheduled Tribes (STs) often tend to do worse than other groups, partly because of their dependence on natural resource–based livelihoods, but also because, being situated in remote rural locations, they have historically been marginalised from state provisioning of services (Basanta Sahu, p 70). While climate variability and the consequent possibility of decline in yields and availability of food increases the general threat of malnutrition and related health risks, these impacts are likely to be more intense for the socially excluded and economically insecure groups, such as the landless, smallholders, Scheduled Castes and STs, and women amongst them. Without such a differentiated analysis, policy interventions will be unable to strengthen the adaptive capacities of those most in need.

Yet, within policy, the word “gender” often replaces “women,” not fully taking on the socially constructed positions that gender relations entail. In a review article on the extent to which
adaptation, vulnerability and resilience research has been engaging with gender over the past decade, Bunce and Ford (2015) found that of the 123 articles they reviewed, only one—from Australia—focused on men, while none focused on other sexual identities. In research and policy focusing on women, they are typically portrayed as overburdened, weak and vulnerable, rather than exercising agency in numerous different ways to overcome adversity, make a living, and, more importantly, contribute to meeting their future aspirations for their children (Amit Mitra, p 55; Asish Kumar Ghosh, Sukanya Banerjee and Farha Naaz, p 63). Men are invisible and, if mentioned, their migration for work and absence from the home are seen to enhance women’s work burdens and vulnerabilities (Arora-Jonsson 2011; Rao et al 2017).

What this brings to the fore is the need to understand not only the changing relationships between men and women, but also the intersecting nature of identities and how they play out in terms of enabling or preventing access to resources and services. Resources are much more than material assets, they have social, symbolic and relational meanings (Rao 2017), and these are gendered. While land or water technology may specifically be constructed as male resources, gold or livestock may have greater social legitimacy as women’s assets (Solomon and Rao; Pranita B Udas, Anjali Prakash and Chanda G Goodrich, p 46). While access to and control over some resources are essential for managing climatic and livelihood uncertainties, given their gendered nature, the same solutions may not work equally for men and women within different social groups. The coping strategies of those with irrigated land, rain-fed land, or the landless (especially Dalits) are likely to be different (Heyer 1989).

Coping with Climate Change

In this special issue, we focus on a few select themes that demonstrate diverse strategies and mechanisms for coping and adapting to climate variability and change, including the frequent occurrence of floods and droughts, the lowering of water tables, and the growing scarcity of water. These include male migration, formation of women’s collectives, shifts to drought- and flood-resilient cash crops, and use of clean energy, amongst others. Contexts of vulnerability and pressures for survival create spaces for the creative use of agency and facilitate the loosening of social norms, in the process contributing also to changes in gender relations. These changes reflect a mix of positive and negative outcomes, as, in times of extreme stress, women may choose strategies such as cutting food intake, with potential long-term adverse health outcomes (Sahu). Nevertheless, we find an ongoing process of negotiation and renegotiation of roles, responsibilities, decision-making and voices within the household. Most of the papers point to the importance of some form of collective action in order to overcome technological and scale constraints and challenge social norms in the domains of both production and reproduction. Interestingly, collective action is less visible in the domain of reproduction.

The papers in this review issue were presented at the 15th National Conference of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies, held in Chennai, in January 2017. Women’s studies has rightly focused on issues of violence, sexuality and bodily integrity—due both to their immediacy and to ensure respect to woman’s personhood—as well as women’s work, its precarity and unpredictability. Climate variability and environmental change are, along with other political economy factors, intensifying the precariousness of livelihoods and women’s work burdens in production and reproduction, threatening their health and nutritional well-being and ultimately their survival. Yet, these links have hardly been explored.

Unpacking Gendered Climate Change

This review issue on the gendered implications of climate change seeks to fill this gap. This collection includes papers from both established and upcoming researchers, and reflects a mix of expertise and methodologies. Empirical evidence for the papers has been drawn from a range of Indian states: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu. Through an intellectually collaborative process, we have tried to use critical gender analytical tools to enable a more nuanced understanding of the implications of climate change for gender relations and household well-being. An attempt has been made to unpack the gendered nature of risks and vulnerabilities confronting people’s lives and livelihoods; the relations of power and social complexities in terms of intersections of gender, caste and class, that shape the choices people make; and the trade-offs between individual interests and reciprocal exchanges, in adapting to changing circumstances (Rao et al 2017).

The paper by Divya Solomon and Nitya Rao explores the implications of depleting groundwater levels on household livelihoods in rural Tamil Nadu using a gendered lens, which helps us understand how women are differentially affected, and cope with water stress. Recognising the masculine connotations of borewell technology—and also the state and community discouragement of women entering these spaces—they observe a simultaneous reversal of the gendered binary at the household level, as women’s assets, such as gold, are used for deepening wells or digging new ones, affecting women’s marriage choices, decision-making and overall well-being. Pranita Udas, Anjal Prakash and Chanda Goodrich, in their paper on the flood and drought-prone West Champaran district of Bihar, also find women’s gold and dowries being increasingly utilised to respond to climate stress and extreme poverty. With connotations of son preference, households with more daughters or only daughters are considered the most vulnerable in the locality.

An emerging area of concern in coping with conditions of drought and flooding relates to migration. Several papers in this collection refer to migration, but the possibilities and opportunities for migration are shaped by gender norms, especially those relating to divisions of labour and notions of social appropriateness at the household level, alongside the demands of segmented labour markets (Rao 2014). In South Asia, a large part of labour migration is male, with women increasingly responsible for both farming and household work in the rural home. The analysis of migrant workers illustrates the parallel trajectories of exploitation and autonomy. Amit Mitra, through his article, located in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, points to how, as men migrate to urban areas, women lease small plots of irrigated land, cultivate vegetables, and hire machinery or other equipment when required. Women’s new engagement with the markets—conventionally the role of men—also means the breaking down of caste, class and gender barriers in the process. A semblance of equality in the relations of husbands and wives is visible, yet, with men facing an apparent crisis in their masculinities, domestic violence and dowry persist, and patriarchy remains firmly rooted.

Male migration has opened spaces for women’s agency and collective action. Cash cropping, especially vegetable cultivation and sale by women has become an important coping strategy, almost the norm, in rural eastern Uttar Pradesh (Mitra). A K Ghosh, Sukanya Banerjee and Farha Naaz find that, in the Indian Bengal Delta, affected by recurring cyclones and storm surges, women have established opportunities and spaces for mutual support and collective action through self-help groups. These have provided a degree of social and economic stability, helping women avoid risky ventures, including sex work. In West Champaran, in addition to cultivating sugar cane, a cash crop, women left behind have turned to shared animal care as an adaptation strategy, which in their perception is less hazardous than agriculture (Udas et al). Male migration for earning livelihoods, while exposing the men concerned to harsh work environments and the risk of ill-health, also ends up increasing women’s responsibilities, work and care burdens. Yet, all these papers highlight the importance of collective action for overcoming extreme forms of vulnerability.

Managing household food security is central to household survival and well-being. In the context of recurrent droughts in two different agroecological contexts in Odisha, one coastal and the other tribal, Basanta Sahu examines the differences in food production, procurement, processing and consumption, using gender and ethnicity as an intersectional lens. When food is unavailable, people change their food habits, eating lower quality of food, rationing it, or reducing the number of dependents. If these strategies do not work, they migrate, often in whole family groups. The subtle differences across agroecological contexts and social groups highlight the contextual nature of gender relations and roles, and the need for disaggregated perspectives in order to respond effectively to local needs and priorities.

What several of the articles in this issue highlight is the growing stress on women’s time as a key mediating pathway to effective adaptation. In the case of a shift from biomass-based energy to cleaner forms of fuel, for instance, Dev Nathan et al, demonstrate how, more than income, it is the opportunity cost in terms of women’s work participation that drives the change, alongside social norms that (de)value women’s time. Their paper, with a focus on access to and use of clean energy, discusses the gendered divisions of labour in both production and reproduction and its links to energy use in both domains, as well as the role of political economy considerations in shaping this process. By comparing findings from Tamil Nadu and Odisha, it also throws light on how contextual differences in infrastructure and service provision, as well as women’s ownership rights and control over resources (land, house, and equipment), shape the use of clean energy.

Finally, climate information is often viewed as technical in nature, in the realm of scientists and climatologists, with its gendered and contextual dimensions completely overlooked. This is slowly changing, with the World Meteorological Organization, which hosted a conference on the gender dimensions of weather and climate services in 2014, concluding that the effects of weather and climate were not gender neutral, but shaped by men’s and women’s distinct social roles and vulnerabilities (OHCHR 2016). In their paper on climate communication, based on fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, R Rengalakshmi, Manjula M and M Devaraj (p 87), point to the fallacies of ignoring gendered needs and understandings in communicating climate information. The types of information needs to vary in response to the particular crops or livestock maintained by women and men, the seasonality of operations and labour requirements, local knowledge, language and idiom, and the avenues for accessing information. They find two-way communication systems delivered through local intermediaries with established relations of trust to be the most effective in communicating climate information to women farmers and smallholders.

Need for Gender-sensitive Policy

Climatic change is a reality, affecting the poor and resourceless the worst. Without a proper understanding of the complexity of issues involved and the links between the geophysical, the agroecological and the socio-economic, we will be unable to suggest gender-sensitive policies and support mechanisms. The papers in this issue try to deepen and nuance our understanding of gender relations in the context of climate change, including male contributions to adaptation, whether through migration, other productive contributions or support with reproductive work; governance, especially in the provisioning of basic services and infrastructure; and the enhancement of basic capabilities, including appropriate knowledge and technology. They also foreground the need for further research that can identify and highlight innovative adaptation mechanisms on the ground, which are often led by poor women, with little support from state or community institutions. Only by giving recognition to women’s agency and their contributions to both paid and unpaid work, and to the production and reproduction of their households, can we create an enabling environment that is sensitive to their needs and gives them voice in decision-making mechanisms.

While our analysis is geographically located in India, the papers collectively demonstrate that women, especially in marginal, rural households, have common interests, not just in transforming the external environment affected critically by climate change, but also in redefining their lives and households. With the increasing unpredictability of agriculture due to climate change, as well as past and present investments—both public and private, that have undermined the sustainable use of resources—women seek greater cooperation and reciprocity from their husbands to ensure a life of security and dignity. Drawing specifically from the concrete realities of women’s lives, we can construct a larger theoretical argument around women’s critical contributions to household livelihoods, more so in an era of climate change. Examining the changing nature of gender relations, roles, and responsibilities could help revisit the debates around the “patriarchal bargain” (Kandiyoti 1988).

Nitya Rao ( teaches gender and development at the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, Norwich. Asha Hans ( is former director of the School of Women’s Studies, Utkal University, Odisha.


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Bunce, Anna and J Ford (2015): “How Is Adaptation, Resilience and Vulnerability Research Engaging with Gender?” Environmental Research Letters, Vol 10, No 12,

Field et al (2014): “Summary for Policymakers,” Climate Change 2014 Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability Summaries, Frequently Asked Questions, and Cross-Chapter Boxes A Working Group II Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Field et al (eds), Geneva: World Meteorological Organization.

Heyer, Judith (1989): “Landless Agricultural Labourers Asset Strategies,” Institute of Development Studies, IDS Bulletin, Vol 20, No 2, pp 33–40.

Kandiyoti, Deniz (1988): “Bargaining with Patriarchy,” Gender and Society, Vol 2, No 3, pp 274–90.

MoEF (2008): “National Action Plan on Climate Change,” Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Government of India, viewed on 22 June 2017,

O’Brien, Karen, Siri Eriksen, Lynn P Nygaard and Ane Schjolden (2007): “Why Different Interpretations of Vulnerability Matter in Climate Change Discourses,” Climate Policy, Vol 7, No 1, pp 73–88.

OHCHR (2016): “Half-day General Discussion on ‘Gender-related Dimensions of Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change,’” Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, viewed on 6 December 2017,

Rao, Nitya (2014): “Migration, Mobility and Changing Power Relations: Aspirations and Praxis of Bangladeshi Migrants,” Gender, Place and Culture, Vol 21, No 7, pp 872–87.

— (2017): “Assets, Agency and Legitimacy: Towards a Relational Understanding of Gender Equality Policy and Practice,” World Development, Vol 95, pp 43–54.

Rao, Nitya, Elaine T Lawson, Wapula N Raditloaneng, Divya Solomon and Margaret N Angula (2017): “Gendered Vulnerabilities to Climate Change: Insights from Semi-arid Regions of Africa and Asia,” Climate and Development, doi: 10.1080/17565529.2017.1372266.

Sönke, Krefte, David Eckstein and Inga Melchior (2016): “Global Climate Risk Index 2017: Who Suffers Most from Extreme Weather Events? Weather-related Loss Events in 2015 and 1996 to 2015,” briefing paper, German Watch, Bonn.

Updated On : 3rd May, 2018


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