The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security recently published a thoughtful paper on Gender, Climate and Security. The webinar that followed the paper discussed issues that we at Agulhas have been grappling with in our work. Here are our thoughts…

C19 exacerbates existing risks and inequalities

The COVID-19 pandemic, with its multiple ramifications for security and insecurity, has been a stark reminder of the wide-ranging impacts on vulnerable populations. While all countries have been affected by the crisis, the long-term impact will be particularly severe in conflict-affected states, countries with overwhelmed or inadequate health infrastructure, and locations with poor governance or where the capacity for response – and recovery – is weak. The crisis and forced suspension of aid programmes, including those aimed at fighting human slavery, also risk exacerbating threats to already vulnerable women in many of those locations.

On 22 May, Earth Day, UN Secretary General António Guterres called on member states to seize the opportunity to “build back better” and plan for a resilient post-pandemic recovery, while UN Women urged governments to include women in response and recovery decision-making[1]. There are strong concerns that the crisis could exacerbate the impact of climate change on peace and security – to include food security, gender violence and inequality, climate displacement and a higher risk of violent conflicts – as budgets and projects are reprioritised, and countries focus instead on mitigating the impact of the pandemic.      

Women are already vulnerable

Women living in communities reliant on natural resources or in conflict-affected areas are among the most vulnerable groups in terms of exposure to climate-related risks. While climate change will not necessarily create new inequalities, it will exacerbate those that already exist, in particular in communities or countries with poor governance or little capacity for adaptation or resilience in the face of extreme events, be it direct (natural disasters) or indirect (conflict arising from the combined effects of climate change and governance failure, political instability, ethno-religious tensions, poverty, resource depletion or/and competition over natural resources).

Climate change hits the poor hardest

The impact of climate change is naturally more acute in developing countries, economically-strained regions, areas prone to natural disasters due to their geographies, and remote rural communities highly dependent on the natural environment. Poorer communities bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, and women are disproportionately affected in terms of safety, health, and socio-economic opportunities.[2] Climate change and resulting extreme events can and will exacerbate unequal distributions of resources and power as well as gender inequalities in fragile environments and communities.

Women will take on more tasks

Climate change, shifting weather and seasonal patterns, and more frequent natural disasters, will further restrict access to dwindling resources – fuel, crop productivity, food supplies, drinking water, adequate sanitation and health facilities, including reproductive health services – while altering or exacerbating gendered division of labour. This can translate into women and girls taking on tasks traditionally carried out by men to compensate for a male workforce moving further afield or into urban areas; or taking on more tasks, often involving greater distances and greater safety risks – for water, food or aid collection for instance – to try to adjust to a changing environment and habitat.

Women can be further weighed down by cultural constraints

Cultural constraints, in particular within more patriarchal societies, also heighten women’s exposure to climate-related risks, ranging, in some of the more extreme cases, from limited access to critical information, including early warning communication, to the inability to leave the household or evacuate before the return of, or without prior authorisation from, a male relative. In the aftermath of disaster, a lack of access to means of production and land rights, which tend to be concentrated in men’s hands in a number of societies, can also impact the ability of women to recover financially and achieve economic independence, while also preventing girls’ access to education.           

Climate-related displacement multiplies the risks to women

While numbers remain uncertain, according to the World Bank’s “Groundswell – Preparing for Internal Climate Migration” report[3], Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could see more than 140 million people move within their countries’ borders by 2050 unless urgent action is taken at the national and global levels.

More frequent extreme climatic events, coupled with depleting resources, will increase forced migration. Forced migrants are a highly vulnerable group, facing risks en route, in camps, and in new communities often hostile to migrants and where adequate housing and services are likely to be lacking, furthering the risk of marginalisation, extreme poverty and homelessness. Forced migration exposes women and girls to greater gender-based risks, including sexual assault, abuse, transactional sex and trafficking. Meanwhile, the added pressure to compete for limited resources and opportunities might expose women left behind to a higher risk of physical and psychological violence within (exploitation, child marriage) and outside (risk of physical harm or kidnapping while fetching water for instance) of the community.

The importance of ‘understanding, speaking, doing gender’      

The points made do not solely affect women within vulnerable populations, and other contributing factors come into play when looking at the impact of climate change on communities deemed most at risk, including ethnicity, power dynamics and population growth. However, climate change is recognised as a “threat multiplier” that may worsen existing social divisions, discriminations, and gender-based vulnerabilities in already fragile or unstable settings. A “gendered” discourse is therefore necessary when examining how to mitigate the effects of climate change and build climate resilience as women and girls are affected differently to men by the impacts of armed conflict and destabilisation, and they are often at the forefront of disaster management, reconstruction and adaptation efforts. We need to include this in our discourse, our analysis and our planning.


[1] https://www.un.org/pt/node/68070

[2] UN Women is a good source of information on the complicated ways in which poverty is gendered. See https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/sdg-report

[3] https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/infographic/2018/03/19/groundswell—preparing-for-internal-climate-migration