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What about gender in climate change? Twelve feminist lessons from development

This article asks a key question for adaptation and gender debates: what can we learn from development on social goal setting, institutional change, and gender equality?
Woman collects millet in Saluma Area, Jordan, escorted by peacekeepers


Adaptation and mitigation – the two key responses to climate change – have socially, spatially and temporally differentiated outcomes. In the global South, they both prompt many questions: what is the direction and degree of change needed, how can new climate change policies be aligned with existing development initiatives, and how are core social relations such as gender understood and prioritised in relation to technical, and other, solutions?

In search of synergies between adaptation, development, and mitigation, this article asks a pertinent question for sub-Saharan small-scale agriculture in particular: what can adaptation and mitigation learn from development debates on social goal setting, institutional change, and gender equality?

From the perspective of sustainability science and feminist literature, three main findings emerge. First, as regards social goal setting, adaptation and mitigation should, like development, support the escape out of poverty, ill-health, and food-insecurity. Second, as regards institutions, adaptation and mitigation should address how gender regulates access to, use of, and control over resources in terms of labour, land, and strategic decision-making power. Third, as regards gender equality, adaptation and mitigation should learn from how development theory and practice has addressed women, gender, nature, and environment. At its core, the analysis contributes twelve salient themes that can significantly inform adaptation and mitigation in research, policy and practice, thus serving as inspiration for a critical debate on much needed synergetic trajectories.

This article is based on What about Gender in Climate Change? Twelve Feminist Lessons from Development, by Anne Jerneck, in Sustainability,2018. Read the full open access article here, or download a PDF version on the right-hand side of this page.

Gender and inequality in the context of climate change

Adaptation can be incremental serving to maintain a system/process, or transformative serving to fundamentally change system attributes. It can be protective in terms of taking preventive measures against negative impacts, or opportunistic in terms of taking advantage of potential benefits of climate change. Impoverished communities exposed to climate change may wish to prioritise adaptation over mitigation, but interestingly, effective adaptation measures can also serve mitigation strategies and development agendas. Such synergies can be found in altered agricultural practice; improved cooking-stoves consuming less fuelwood and releasing lower emissions and fewer pollutants; and in the technology adoption of agro-forestry.

However, populations who are poor and highly exposed to climatic events may be severely constrained in promoting their own adaptation and mitigation agenda. To advance their cause in international climate change negotiation and policies, it is important to demonstrate that this population is largeand its potential contribution to mitigation isdecisive. It should also be noted that despite the promises of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs), and despite fairly high economic growth rates in several countries, every other person out of the nearly 800 million people in the world who suffer from extreme poverty lives in sub-Saharan Africa. Thus. if poverty persists then climate change responses must, at the very least, avoid cementing or reinforcing existing social and gender inequalities.

Knowledge on how and to what extent climate change interacts with social and spatial inequality is under-represented in research and policy, but it is increasingly accepted that adaptation is gendered and varies across scales and subjectivities. Studies have shown that vulnerabilities are rooted in gendered divisions of land, labour, decision making power, and access to resources. Critical geographers argue that social relations, practices and processes must be disentangled to make research and policy sensitive to the intersecting inequalities that emerge when climate change impacts and responses cut across age, class, ethnicity, gender and space. In that mission, gender informed approaches and disaggregated data are essential. While measuring is a good method for generating correlations and overviews for comparison, causality must be sought more deeply in the social structures and individual practices of everyday life where the gender order and regimes are manifested.

As climate change vulnerability and adaptation are gendered, there is need for critical feminist studies that describe and explain gender asymmetries while keeping in mind that neither women nor men belong to homogenous entities. The premise for that debate starts with the insight that gender shapes social relations and situations in profound ways. Through the institutions of norms, rules and values, gender becomes integral to everyday interactions.

Gendered lessons from development (abridged)

There are four typical approaches for how to address gender, each of which has its own particular foci and methods: (i) counting women and men; (ii) analysing gender as social relations; (iii) explaining identity and diversity beyond gender, i.e. intersectionality; and (iv) reflexive questioning of knowledge production.

This paper (access here or from the right-hand column) goes beyond counting and into representation and social relations, which in turn has implications for how knowledge is produced in the context of climate change impacts and responses. It introduces a set of twelve salient themes (summarised below – see the full text for more detail) as an analogy for how to think about gender and sustainability in the climate change responses of adaptation and mitigation.

  1. Vulnerability: Intrinsic or Socially Contingent?While there is no universal definition of vulnerability, it is argued that vulnerability is not intrinsic to people but rather is rooted in patterns of practices, processes and power relations that render some more disadvantaged than others. Depending on how social relations shape rights and responsibilities in production, reproduction and decision-making, women and men may be affected differently. Women may also be disadvantaged in access to adaptation resources and adaptive capacity.
  2. Defining Small-Scale Farming: Complex, Diverse and Gendered. Small-scale agriculture is permeated with gendered rights, risks and responsibilities caused by underlying structures of gender inequality and expressed in power asymmetries in access to land, labour and leisure time. If gender determines the use and control of social and environmental resources it will also influence adaptive capacity. Even in cases where gendered rights, roles and responsibilities are central, the actual dynamics, practices and strategies in relation to resources are not always well understood, leading interventions to fail.
  3. Analytical Categories: Women or Gender?There is a debate around how to engage with different analytical categories in this field. The category or lens of gender draws attention to intersectional and relational aspects (e.g. women/men, femininity/masculinity), and a wider understanding of culture and society. Yet, some argue that thinking in more diffuse or neutral terms dilutes feminist ideas, and that, practically speaking, it is more effective to directly support women. Paying attention to how womenact, speak and think—be it in development or in adaptation contexts—may better serve women’s needs or meet their calls for action.
  4. Perceptions: Women as Resourceful Agents or Vulnerable Victims—or Both?In many contexts, women who are poor are often described as vulnerable victims, virtuous saviors, or both. However, this portrayal overlooks the relational aspect of gender (where are men? what are their roles?); it views vulnerability and care-taking as intrinsic to women (a virtue); and its focus on individuals rather than on social relations and structures burdens women, particular poor women, with more tasks and responsibilities beyond their conventional ones. Such neoliberal constructs imply a certain type of political conditioning (to enjoy rights one must fulfil ascribed responsibilities), but may offer bargaining power.
  5. Labour: Coding and Recoding—Static or Dynamic? While gender norms can appear fixed, work is continuously reinterpreted and recoded accordingly – institutional instability and fluidity means that the norms and rules regulating work and wages are subject to ongoing socio-cultural negotiations. For instance, while women are often located at the intersection between wage-work (production) and household care (reproduction), women with intra-household bargaining power may become resourceful agents. How adaptation will affect or be affected by these conditions is not clear, but existing inequalities may well morph into new ones.
  6. Rights: Customary or Statutory—or Both?Women and men are positioned differently in terms of access to and power over resources. Institutional arrangements, gendered norms, rules and values shape people’s capacities, incentives and preferences for access to, use of, and control over resources. Rights to resources may appear as bundles of private, common or public goods and may differ between customary or statutory legal institutions. In contexts where state-recognized property rights are lacking, gender regimes may instead govern access to, ownership of and control over resources. Existing structures of inequality may reinforce climate change impacts and result in differentiated outcomes.
  7. Social Position and Mobility: First up, then Down?Social, cultural and gender norms have been contested, challenged and changed throughout history, not least in times of social upheaval or major technological transformation, and as of late, as a consequence of climate change. Gender norms can become fluid and flexible during such times. Despite women’s unexpected rise and achievements during turbulent times of recoded gender relations, their gains in terms of improved conditions or higher positions and status appear fragile—and gender often reverts to ‘normal’ soon after such a period. How social position and mobility will play out in terms of climate change is yet to be fully seen.
  8. Social Relations: Integration, Exploitation or Empowerment?Debates exist around the role of women in the economy, with positions ranging from enhancing integration (to reap benefits and contribute to development) to ending exploitation (as women’s roles in reproductive and productive work are often undervalued and exploited). Concerns about women’s low income, heavy workload and ‘time poverty’ have since been mainstreamed into development thinking. However, gender mainstreaming efforts often neglect the role of men and masculinity (i.e. that gender is relational), resulting in limited insights into society and profoundly relational structures and interactions. Empowerment involves both individual and social processes and concerns women’s i) ability to participate on equal terms with men in shaping and reshaping society, ii) capacity to exercise strategic control over one’s own life; and iii) willingness to question one’s position in society.
  9. Nature/Environment: Belonging to Nature—or Being Susceptible to Environmental Damage and Danger?In feminist debates, some warn that women run the risk of carrying the burden of environmental care because they are ‘closer to nature, are hardest hit by environmental degradation and have special knowledge of natural resource systems’, meaning they would be more vulnerable to climate change and relational impacts. Others are critical of this essentialist view and recent research offers insights that suggest women do not necessarily possess any essential orientation towards nature or resource conservation. A closer study of gendered variability within and between settings may therefore help identify influential aspects and dimensions that go beyond essentialism.
  10. Social Goals: Efficiency or Equity—or Environmental Justice?Gender is often discussed in terms of strengthening capabilities, increasing empowerment, and promoting equal access and participation. Meanwhile, equity in process and outcome has been suggested as a means to strengthen development effectiveness, as inequity is said to go against (economic) efficiency. A transformative gender approach, which follows an ‘empowerment pathway’ that engages both women and men to actively rethink the gendered coding of working tasks, is suggested to increase both gender equality and efficiency in agricultural intervention and extension services. In the context of climate change, all development-related goals must now consider not only existing gender inequalities and inefficiencies but also new and emerging gendered vulnerabilities.
  11. Norms and Power: Fixed—or Flexible and Fluid?Everyday practices generate gendered processes that create ‘separate spheres’, each characterized by certain priorities and privileges. Gendered norms, rules and values may be challenged in the course of social and human-environmental interaction; and while some boundaries and relations seem to be fixed, others are more fluid or flexible. Climate change can exacerbate gendered relations and responsibilities, while new obligations for adaptation and mitigation may arise for women. Recoding work tasks can ensure the distribution of responsibility is more gender equal.
  12. Technology Uptake: Adopt—or Not Adopt?Major processes of social change involve technological change and adoption. Research indicates that this is a complex non-linear process with uncertain outcomes where attitudes, knowledge and perceptions among adopters are crucial. Technology adoption depends on social relations and institutional arrangements, and affects labour division and resource use within households. New technology may impose serious time constraints owing to gendered responsibilities that result in growing work burdens for women. Time-saving benefits depend on what activities will replace the hours formerly spent. We need to ask if the time saved is of practical value, i.e. will women use it for further household chores, thus increasing work burdens, or if it is of strategicvalue, i.e. could women use it for leisure or to enhance their own interests? A gendered understanding of technology adoption requires consideration of not only local gender regimes but also societal gender norms and structures.

These points have been summarised – see the full text for much more detail.

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