UN International Day of Rural Women

Why rural women are integral in the upcoming climate change negotiations
October 14, 2014
by Claudia Ringler

We know more and more about what our planet faces as climate change intensifies and greenhouse gas emissions lead us on a probably irreversible path of global warming and uncertain rainfall patterns, at least for the next four decades. As policymakers prepare for another round of climate change negotiations in December in Lima, Peru, they are no longer only discussing climate change prevention, or “mitigation.” It is imperative that we also turn our attention to “adaptation”; learning to adapt to climate change now is critical because climate change is affecting livelihoods, particularly in rural areas.

Growing evidence suggests that men and women experience climate change impacts differently and have different needs for adaptation. Thus, to respond effectively to people’s needs and leverage their strengths and contributions, we must pay close attention to gender-based differences and embed them into the design of climate change policies and programs.

In my recent research, we found that too many institutions responsible for leading adaptation efforts in developing countries have no way of tracking whether men and women experience and deal with climate change differently. For example, three-quarters of development agencies in Ethiopia do not collect, analyze, or report gender-disaggregated data. Collecting data only at the household level, they operate under the assumption that all household resources are shared equally, that all decisions are taken jointly, and that all household members benefit.

As we look forward to the UN International Day of Rural Women on October 15th, I want to emphasize why we need to specifically target rural women in our efforts to adapt to climate change:

  1. There is a gender gap in what men and women own, and women’s assets are often sold to cope with climatic shocks. Women and men hold joint and individual assets of different value, such as land, livestock or jewelry. Generally men hold most agricultural assets, including land. Women’s assets are smaller in value and generally have higher liquidity – and are thus more easily sold. When weather-related shocks (for example, floods and droughts) hit, women’s assets are often sold, while jointly held assets are preserved to protect the family’s main income source. While the household unit may be better off, this leaves women in a worse position to address future shocks. Social protection schemes should be geared toward enabling women to hold onto their assets during climate shocks.
  2. Climate information, which is essential for adaptation, is not equally available to men and women. Access to climate information shapes climate change perceptions and responses. In Ethiopia, most men and women perceive climate change, but wives are less concerned about its consequences. The difference in concern likely stems from lack of access to information. Husbands are more likely to report having access to climate information, particularly from formal sources, such as agricultural extension agents, radio broadcasts and community meetings. For instance, research shows that in Mali, men are more likely to receive information on climate change adaptation strategies through social networks, while the capacity of women to transfer and absorb new knowledge is more limited. Efforts to promote climate change adaptation must ensure that information reaches both men and women in order to promote equal participation across genders. Similarly, in Kenya, research found that women were less likely to know about climate smart agricultural practices—but that those who knew about them were as likely as men to adopt the practices.
  3. Women have less access to agricultural technologies that support adaptation. In Mali, irrigation allowed men to increase the value of their total production almost enough to offset the negative impact of climatic shocks. Women, on the other hand, had limited access to irrigation or other farm technology, such as motorized tillers that would increase productivity. Other low tech tools such as plows are more equally shared, and women’s and men’s on-farm production benefited similarly. In Kenya, women with similar information and access to technology were at least as likely as men to undertake climate change adaptation strategies.
  4. Risk aversion negatively affects adaptation by rural women. Men and women who are concerned about risks are less likely to adopt new technologies to adapt to climate change. Several studies have suggested that women are more risk averse, leaving them unlikely to change their agricultural practices under climate change. While our studies in Bangladesh and Ethiopia found that women are not more risk averse overall, we found that they were more risk averse when taking decisions on agriculture. In Ethiopia, education reduced risk aversion in men while women’s risk preferences were shaped by social interactions. Previous losses from climatic shocks increase risk aversion in women and men, but more so for women. For rural women to adapt to climate change it will be important to understand their tolerance for risk and improve their capacity to understand risk.
  5. Rural women value risk sharing. In a Bangladesh case study, women valued insuring against agricultural risk faced by the household even though they are less involved in agricultural decision-making than men. This is due to their understanding that agriculture is the main income source for the household. But women had less education and lower financial literacy than their male counterparts, as well as less background in understanding agricultural risk. This placed them at a disadvantage when facing insurance purchase decisions.
  6. Group-based approaches for climate change adaptation can support rural women. Group-based approaches can help women to enhance access or control over assets. In Bangladesh, women benefit from groups, such as credit groups, when climatic and other shocks occur, but women participate in fewer groups, spend fewer hours in group activities and are less active in decision-making. Policymakers should seek ways to increase the active participation of women in decision-making, rather than focusing only on increasing the number of women who participate in group activities.
  7. Laws and regulations are not sufficient for gender equality and resilience. Even though Ethiopia implemented a highly successful reform of land rights that was gender sensitive, gender-related gaps in knowledge about the reform reduced women’s adoption of both soil conservation practices and the planting of tree crops and legumes, important practices for climate-smart agriculture. While agricultural research centers have directed their efforts to improving these technologies as well as building capacity to implement these through more effective extension systems, increasing knowledge of land rights may be equally important, or even more important, in achieving climate resilience in Ethiopia.

The International Day of Rural Women reminds us of rural women’s distinct role in climate adaptation – one that we can only see and support if we measure it. Let’s hope that negotiators who will meet in Peru in December to decide upon the fate of our climate will negotiate for mitigation and adaptation strategies that meet the needs of women as well as men.