Questions of ‘gender’ and vulnerability to climate change
What does it mean when we talk about climate change with a focus on gender? What is 'gender' in this context, and what is a 'gender-based' approach? Most ongoing discussions around 'gender' and climate change are dominated by issues concerning women. This is for good reason. Women are set to be disproportionately impacted by the exacerbation of extreme weather events associated with climate change.
‘Gender’ and the existing focus on women
In regions suffering from crop loss and food scarcity, food is often prioritized for male members of the household while women and girls receive smaller portions and are more likely to become malnourished.
Women’s workload simultaneously increases as it becomes necessary to walk greater distances to collect clean water and obtain food. Further to this, as households experience stresses on income and food supply, domestic violence against women tends to increase.
Women spend more time than men in the household and away from town centres, and are less likely to own their own phone. This reduces the likelihood that they will receive timely emergency warnings - - about incoming storms, for example - - and advice on what actions to take.
Furthermore, women are more likely to avoid going to cyclone shelters due to fears of being around unknown male company, and a greater risk of being subjected to sexual harassment or assault.
Additionally, women and girls are less likely to have learned to swim, increasing their likelihood of drowning when encountering floods. This problem is compounded by their clothing, particularly sarees, which are known for having a lot of drag and becoming caught up in trees and other debris.
Beyond the more immediate impacts of climate change, the longer-term challenges of climate change are also experienced differently by women and men.
It is more common that male rather than female household members will migrate out of highly-exposed areas in search of alternative sources of income, and in such situations, it is often women who are left to manage a household and child care on their own, not necessarily knowing when or if remittances will arrive.
In light of such ways in which women’s experiences of climate change are expected to be different compared to men’s, conversations around 'gender' and climate change tend to be dominated by the central topic of women and the extra burdens they are set to bear as the impacts of climate change become more severe.
Broadening considerations of 'gender'
Yet 'gender' encompasses more than traditional binary groupings of 'women' and 'men'. A more inclusive interpretation of 'gender' further includes transgender people (who identify as a gender different to that which they were assigned and socialized as at birth) and gender non-binary people (who feel that they fit into neither the category of 'woman' or 'man').
Yet, discussions around 'gender' and climate change generally do not consider the ways in which the experiences of these groups with climate change may be different from cis-gendered women and men (people who identify with the gender which they were assigned at birth).
In what ways does a person’s non-cis gender identity - - as something which is either known by the wider community or as something which is hidden from the wider community - - impact the way they engage with society and economy, and impact the way in which other people engage with them?
Based on these differences, in what ways are trans and non-binary people likely to be differently impacted by climate change? Once considerations of gender and climate change are broadened in this manner, this subsequently invites further questions, for example, about ways in which non-heterosexual people (gay, lesbian, bi- or other) may also be differently impacted by climate change.
If a person suffers social exclusion and discrimination based on their gender orientation or sexuality (be it something that is known to the wider community, or even based on rumours) this may impact the extent to which the person is included by the wider community in preparations for or responses to an environmental event.
Threats of violence and discrimination from the wider community may further impact the willingness of such people to seek access to available forms of assistance. In situations of economic downturn due to infrastructure damage and crop loss, they may be more likely to be turned away from paid employment.
They may additionally be less likely to be part of an integrated wider family network to whom they can turn for help in preparation for, or in the wake of a disaster. This includes local family members who could offer immediate local help, or even migrant family members who could facilitate the person’s subsequent migration.
The impacts of discrimination and exclusion from the family are even more acute for elderly individuals who are more prone to suffering in extreme temperatures and less able to travel to shelters on their own.
By considering these scenarios, it becomes apparent that there are many factors beyond a female gender identity which can shape a person’s experience with increasingly extreme weather events. In light of this, an intersectional approach to discussions around gender and climate change is useful.
What is ‘intersectionality’?
Through an intersectional approach, questions of 'gender' in the context of climate change ultimately open the doors for considerations not just for the ways in which women and men are impacted differently by climate change, but also for the ways in which such gendered differences diverge between people of varying backgrounds and social identities.
As an approach within critical feminist theory, intersectionality has historical roots in the reactions of black feminists in the United States to a mainstream feminist movement which they criticized for generalizing understandings of women’s struggles around a white, middle-class experience.
The mainstream feminist movement questioned, for example, the gendered division of labour whereby (white, middle-class) women were assigned to roles in the household and excluded from formal employment opportunities.
Contrarily, the fight for the right to engage in paid employment outside the home had little relevance to working-class women of colour who had for a long time been forced to undertake the compacted responsibilities of both low-wage employment and household-based labour.
In addition to their exclusion from the mainstream feminist movement, women of colour struggled to have their voices and gender-based experiences of racism represented within the civil rights movement, as leadership positions were largely held by men.
Suffering further sexism within these groups, it was evident that neither the feminist nor civil rights movements on their own were going to adequately address the intersecting forms of oppression that women of colour experienced based on their gender, race, and class. It was understood that liberation for all women would not take place while issues of race-based and class-based oppression remained unaddressed by the wider feminist movement.
Through an intersectional perspective, experiences of oppression are understood as being inherently bound up not only in gender but in additional interacting factors (which carry their own social power dynamics) such as class, economic status, place/location, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, age, sexual orientation, gender identity (beyond cis -gendered male and female identities and including those transgender or non-binary people), physical ability, and health.
How does intersectionality relate to climate change?
In the context of climate change, understandings of vulnerability can be made more nuanced through an intersectional approach. Class, place/location, and livelihood are already prominent factors in consideration when gauging vulnerability to climate change.
Someone who lives in a coastal area (which is highly exposed to storms, flooding, and erosion), and who is additionally both a low-income earner and dependent on agriculture or aquaculture for their income is widely understood to be highly vulnerable to climate change.
Climate change policy discussions and program designs already tend to acknowledge the intersections of a female gender identity with these factors (class, location, and livelihood) and the role of these intersections in shaping a person’s vulnerability to climate change.
Yet beyond this, a wider and more deliberate intersectional approach can be used to identify groups of people who may be additionally marginalised and thereby more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
In what ways are a person’s experiences of climate change impacted by their other various intersecting social positions? For example, as a member of a minority ethnic group such as the Arakanese in Barisal division? Or as a Hindu person in a predominantly Muslim area? As a person of uncertain nationality and legal status such as the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar? As a person who is very young or very old? As a person who has a non-heterosexual sexuality? Or a non-cis gender identity, such as a hijra person? As a person who suffers with mental or physical health problems? Or as a person who was born neuro-diverse or differently physically abled?
For people who are marginalised by more than one of these factors (in addition to the more traditional indicators of vulnerability relating to female/male gender identity, class, location, and livelihood), how do their experiences with social life and with climate change differ based on the interaction of those specific factors?
It is useful to know, for example, how climate change may differently impact an elderly, less-mobile Muslim woman in a peri-urban embankment area, compared to a young able-bodied Hindu woman who lives in a rural floodplain region and engages in subsistence agriculture.
Information gathered on this can be used to inform the design of programs and policies to improve assistance to vulnerable groups. The aim is not to introduce so many categories and complexities to the point where disaster response becomes slow, inefficient, and ineffective.
Yet this approach can be useful in identifying groups and sub-groups of people who may otherwise be left behind, forgotten, or excluded from receiving assistance, and who may be more in need of such assistance.
Further, short term programs and policies which address the immediate impacts of climate change, an intersectional approach can help better inform efforts to address underlying inequalities between groups, which form the cause for the greater vulnerability of some groups over others.
The traditional focus on gender and women’s vulnerability has raised questions for ways in which women can be better integrated into social and economic life, thereby reducing their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. The same approach can be used to promote the integration of other marginalised groups, and thereby reduce their underlying disposition as vulnerable people in the face of climate change.
Acknowledging the intersections of various social aspects in the way that people experience climate change further allows discussions of gender to move beyond existing broad and simplistic portrayals of women as vulnerable victims of climate change.
An intersectional approach can further acknowledge various other factors which may make some women more vulnerable than others, and may make a non-cis person or even a man highly vulnerable to climate change.
Anna Plowman is currently undertaking her PhD in Development Studies focusing on climate change and migration, at SOAS University of London. She is also a Visiting Researcher with ICCCAD.