Can women adapt to climate change?

A new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change on November 25, 2019, says that women may be unable to change their mode of survival to adapt to climate change and resulting alterations in socioeconomic and cultural conditions. The factors responsible for this difficulty may include migration of male family members and unfavourable working conditions, abetted by governmental failure to support them, or poverty.

Climate change is most threatening in places like Africa and Asia, where it can cause a dramatic erosion of social support and the means of livelihood. This combination can be deadly, exposing women, in particular, to a still higher risk of failure to adapt successfully. This is shaped by gender, social and cultural factors, income, agricultural and natural conditions, in a variety of ways. The result is that women in that area go through adverse experiences and face negative consequences of climate change in the given context.

Social structures

In most developing countries the strength of tradition supports conservative social structures that deny power to women by disallowing them the power to use resources, to choose the type of work they will do, to move from one place to another, and to make decisions on a variety of important matters. This is one critical factor that hampers adaptability.

Image Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

The study

The current study focuses on climate change hotspots, as they are called, where multiple factors converge to make women extremely vulnerable to maladaptation. The researchers used 25 case studies from places like India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, in South-east Asia and the Indian subcontinent. They also drew participation from African hotspots like Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali, Namibia and Senegal. The geographical range of the study includes 14 semi-arid regions, 6 mountain and river basins fed by glaciers, and 5 delta regions.

Most of the participants were farmers, or livestock breeders, or fishermen, and most required additional wage labor, petty businesses or trade, and support from family members outside the country or state, in the form of money remittances, to successfully eke out the little they earned. The challenges were exacerbated by natural risk conditions including drought, flood, excessive or scanty rains, erosion of soil, landslides, coastline erosion, storms and heatwaves.

The purpose of the study was to evaluate the extent and manner in which decision making and women’s agency, or the power to plan and carry out important decisions, is involved in adaptation.

The researchers come from the UK but also from India, Pakistan, Nepal and South Africa.

The findings

The study shows that climate change is one example of a stressor in the environment which makes it difficult for women to act as agents, even if the family supports her, or she lives in a culturally flexible society. This is even so if the law supports her right to resources.

The result of this weakening of women’s ability to plan and strategize is that women are forced to shoulder still greater burdens and responsibilities. This is particularly true when women are younger, poorer, marginalized, of minority origin, or less educated.
In the face of such challenges, male responses often include migration. This is supposed to help out with family finances, but the actual quantum of support is both doubtful and irregular, making it something not to be counted on. When faced with the need to pull through the difficult time without meaningful male support, and without the required facilities or services to help them cope, women respond by working still harder, for significantly less than their male counterparts, and in much worse working conditions. The outcomes are obviously negative as regards their wellbeing, health and nutritional status.

The researchers point out the important fact that while women are actively producing and reproducing, or in other words, while they are still agents and vocal, the price of this type of agency is a weakening of their long-term adaptation and loss of wellbeing.
They suggest that creative problem-solving measures must be applied in these situations where multiple factors precipitate the load of responsibility on women, so that they can adapt more effectively without sacrificing their own long-term survival.

Implications and suggestions

Such studies will mean a lot when it comes to carrying through actions based on international agreements and treaties like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that sets out a Gender Action Plan to execute adaptation-friendly strategies that are sensitive to gender-specific issues. Such agreements can be meaningfully implemented only if we know how men and women in different environments require specific types of help to empower them to adapt in an effective, sustainable and socially just manner.

Some of the points put forth by the researchers include a social protection net with a stronger effect, such as the universal public distribution system that makes cereals available to every person in India, or the social funding and pensions that exist in Namibia. Such social initiatives and programs will help women to survive over the short term without giving up all their rights in return. They can then look for the best way to use their skills and strength since survival is not an urgent necessity.

The second suggestion raised by the study is to promote collective community action for mutual benefit rather than competition for scarce resources between individuals and families. This requires significant investments to provide for the initial stage of equitable and effective redistribution of resources. One often-hyped solution is the Women’s Self-Help Groups, which, however, suffer the same lack of resources, abilities and skills that would enable the women involved to overcome the challenges they meet. Training and financial investment is thus a primary move towards making such initiatives fruitful.

Finally, they state that a competitive labor market cheapens, exploits and degrades labor, whether poor men who have migrated or poor women who remain to run the household. They say, “There appears to be a clear case for regulating labor markets to ensure decent work, whether for women or for migrant men, but this is proving difficult in a globalized context.”

Journal reference:

Rao, N., Mishra, A., Prakash, A. et al. A qualitative comparative analysis of women’s agency and adaptive capacity in climate change hotspots in Asia and Africa. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2019) doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0638-y,

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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