5 questions you should be asking about climate change and rural women


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5 questions you should be asking about climate change and rural women

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
©IFAD/Nana Kofi Acquah

The effects of climate change aren’t “one size fits all.” As is too often the case, those most vulnerable are experiencing the brunt of the climate crisis. This includes rural-dwellers all over the world – especially rural women and girls.

For International Women's Day, we look at why rural women are more strongly affected by climate change and explore how they can lead the way in adapting to the new environment.

Doesn’t climate change affect everyone equally?

No. While climate change and environmental degradation are global issues, the worst impacts aren’t evenly distributed. Women and girls are hugely and disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis and environmental destruction. This is especially true across the Global South and for those who face multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination.

Small-scale farmers in developing countries depend on agriculture for both their food and their income. But the agriculture sector is expected to be the hardest hit by climate change. Changing weather is making old ways of farming a challenge, while damaging weather events, like storms and droughts, are getting stronger and more frequent.

Women make up almost half of the world's agricultural workforce and are highly dependent on agriculture to feed themselves and their families. But, due to pre-existing structural inequalities and gender discrimination, they’re the ones who are most vulnerable to disruptions in this sector.

Why should rural women lead climate change adaptation?

Because women play such a significant role in agriculture, they are also key agents of change in adopting climate adaptation measures.

Every day, rural women see the effects of climate change taking hold. It’s in the way they tend fields or animals, process foods, prepare household meals. Sometimes the changes are big: when wells dry up, for example, they must go farther to find water.

But systemic discrimination is amplified in times of disaster. And problems like violence, instability, unemployment, food insecurity and the demands of unpaid domestic and care work intensify after disasters – and they affect women more. Climate change also aggravates existing tensions in societies and communities – and again, women are often the worst affected.

Rural women are experienced leaders and entrepreneurs. They already know what they and their communities need to adapt. They just need to be empowered and heard.

Climate change is urgent. Should we really spend precious time and resources on huge systemic problems like gender inequality?

The short answer is: yes.

Climate interventions currently fail to account for the realities women and girls experience during climate crises, such as intensified gender-based violence and violations of sexual and reproductive rights, along with economic insecurity (including land and food insecurity) and an increase in unpaid domestic and care work.

Here are just some of the ways gender inequality increases women’s and girls’ exposure to climate risks:

  • With less access to resources and opportunities, it’s harder for them to be resilient and recover from disasters.
  • They have fewer avenues to participate in decision-making, leaving them less able to protect themselves against impending risks.
  • They face more restrictions on access to services like health care and education, putting them at greater risk of harm.
  • 4 in 5 people displaced by climate disasters are women.

What's more, we know that existing gender inequality worsens during crises. We saw this during the COVID-19 pandemic, itself a symptom of environmental degradation. Women took on an even greater share of household and care responsibilities, faced spiralling rates of gender-based violence, and were left more exposed to climate impacts, while being less empowered to drive solutions. As climate change takes hold, women will once again bear the greatest burden.

On the other hand, in more gender-equal societies, families and communities tend to be more secure and cohesive, and more resilient to crises.

Rural women already have a lot on their plates. Do they really have the time and resources to lead on climate change adaptation?

Women perform a disproportionate share of the work of rural life – from childcare to tending crops – leaving little time for anything else. But much of what they do is either unpaid, underpaid, or unrecognized.

Women produce much of the food in developing countries, but only 15 per cent of agricultural land is owned by them. Persistent and rising insecure ownership, access and control of land by women remains a bottleneck to strengthening the capacity of communities to be resilient from the negative impacts of climate change. They also have less access to and control over resources, like inputs and training that would help them grow their livelihoods and build resilience.

It's time the essential role women play in rural life be recognized and valued. By distributing responsibilities fairly amongst household members, reducing women's workloads, and recognizing their rights, women will finally have some time and energy back. This will give them the chance to use their experience, knowledge and skills however they please – and we know that many of their activities have the added benefit of increasing their household incomes, building resilience, and helping them adapt to the conditions that are changing along with the climate.

IFAD-supported projects are already hard at work helping women win this time back. Initiatives like the RUFIN project in Nigeria encourage dialogues between men and women that help them rethink traditional gender norms and make shared decisions about household chores and spending.

What is needed to help rural women lead the change?

Two words: social transformation. We need to take down the structural barriers that rural women face and involve them in every decision.

When women are given access to and control over resources and economic opportunities, they can contribute equally to households and communities. For example, when financing and insurance policies were given to businesses in tsunami-affected communities in India, women-led enterprises grew 60 per cent more than those of their peers.

And in Nepal, women now occupy over half of all leadership positions in supply chain groups, contributing to more resilient livelihoods.

Rural women and girls have always been on the front lines of climate change. For a safe, resilient future, they need to be the ones who lead the way.


Explore all of IFAD's work on gender and climate change.