Climate change is a new reality that the world has to grapple with. Extreme weather events like prolonged droughts and floods have become a common occurrence. The impacts of these events continue to sweep across populations, especially among poor. Women are especially vulnerable to climate change.
Women’s particular vulnerability to the detrimental effects of climate change stems from two factors First, women are predominantly dependent on agriculture. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, women contribute 60–80% of the labour used to produce food – both for subsistence and for sale. Yet, their agricultural productivity remains lower than that of men. This is mainly attributed to their limited access to important agricultural inputs, including labour, fertilisers, high-productivity crop varieties, and pesticides. It is argued that if women were provided with similar production resources as men, farm yields would increase by 20–30%, and hunger would be reduced by 17%.
The second factor is that the roles and responsibilities assigned to women in society make them more vulnerable to climate change. In many African societies, women are primarily responsible for preparing food, maintaining the supply of household energy (for example, by collecting firewood), collecting water, and caring for children and the elderly. Climate change consequences can increase their burden because of these roles. For example, prolonged droughts can reduce the number of available freshwater sources, which means women have to travel longer distances in search of water for domestic and farm use, and the time they have available for engaging in productive activities and generating income is reduced. In this way, climate change worsens gender inequalities.
Food systems are directly impacted by climate change. Extreme climate events such as drought and floods have been associated with reduced crop yields and livestock productivity. This leads to increased food insecurity and malnutrition. Women’s vulnerable position predisposes them to bear the bulk of these negative effects on food security. Climate change is therefore likely to widen the gender gap in food insecurity. According to a 2022 Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report, 31.9% of women globally are either severely or moderately food insecure compared to 27.6% of men – a gap that has widened since 2020, mainly due to COVID-19.
Climate-change impacts can be reduced by implementing effective adaptation strategies such as growing of drought-resistant crop varieties, crop diversification, climate-smart irrigation, etc. However, the abovementioned constraints can make it difficult for women to adopt these strategies. This raises the following questions: 1) To what extent are women adapting to climate change? 2) What types of adaptation strategies do they engage in? 3) How do these differ from the ones men engage in? 4) What is the implication of these adaptation strategies for men and women’s food security? These are the questions our FSNet-Africa research project seeks to answer.
Our FSNet-Africa research project
Our FSNet-Africa research project focuses on populations living in arid and semi-arid areas in Kenya. We examine how they have experienced climate change over the years, how they adapt to climate change, and the implications of this for their food security status. We are interested in gender differences. We are studying male-headed and female-headed households and considering both monogamous and polygamous families. Using this approach, we are developing a deeper understanding of the differential roles played by patriarchal norms, gender, and other socially-defined roles and responsibilities within and across families in shaping adaptive capacity and action and how this intersects with food security.
We will identify strategies men and women have been adopting to cushion themselves from climate-change impacts and how effective these have been in helping them circumvent the negative effects of climate change on food security. Understanding the differences between men and women is important in enabling the development of policies to the promote adaptive capacity of all genders, which in turn contributes towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of promoting gender equality (SDG 5). Furthermore, understanding how different adaptation strategies affect household food security is an important starting point for identifying effective ways to reduce food insecurity, thereby contributing to the achievement of SDG 2 – zero hunger
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we reflect on women’s role in navigating climate-change impacts. We recognise that women are not passive victims but rather active participants playing an important role in African food systems in the midst of changing climate patterns. Their role should not be ignored but rather understood and supported.