The impacts of climate change are far from gender-neutral. Despite notable progress toward gender inclusiveness, 2.4 billion women still lack equal economic rights relative to men, while 178 countries uphold legal barriers obstructing women’s full engagement in socioeconomic activities (World Bank 2022). Asia and the Pacific, home to 6 out of 10 of the most climate-affected countries, paints a stark portrait of gender inequalities, with women in the region encountering an economic inactivity rate of 55.7% (UNESCAP 2023). The roots of gender inequality lie in the unequal distribution of caring responsibilities placed upon women, coupled with gender-differentiated power dynamics in labor force participation and social experiences. For girls, disparities are reflected in higher rates of disengagement from education and employment compared to boys (International Labour Organization 2023).
The journey toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) thus hinges upon a gender-inclusive perspective. The McKinsey Global Institute posits that adopting a gender-focused approach to climate change could potentially inject a remarkable $12 trillion, equivalent to 26% of global gross domestic product (GDP), by 2025 (Woetzel et al. 2015). This amount surpasses the combined GDP of economic giants such as Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom, highlighting the scale of the existing gaps in women’s economic opportunities and the risk of a continuing landscape where women remain disproportionately vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. The United Nations (2022) predicts that if progress continues at its current pace, it will take 257 years to bridge the global gender gap.
Gender parity for sustainable economic advancement
Women undeniably play crucial roles in contributing to society and the economy in various sectors and aspects. A vivid example can be drawn from the food and agricultural sectors. The Food and Agriculture Organization (2019) estimates that feeding the world will demand a 70% increase in food production by 2050. This monumental task demands innovative technologies, healthy biodiversity, and a more diversified workforce for effective climate planning.
Women, functioning as both producers and laborers, hold a pivotal role within the global food system. They make up one-third of the agricultural workforce, bearing a greater burden in terms of reliance on natural resources. In low-income nations, women play a significant role, accounting for 70% of farmland labor in both family-based and hired work roles (Lowder et al. 2016). Despite their significant contributions, women’s land ownership remains below 20%, with only 5% accessing agricultural services and funding (World Bank 2012).
In small island developing states, women encounter more barriers, receiving only a mere 10% of allocated aid for natural resource sectors like forestry and fishing. For instance, in Fiji, 83% of family income comes from women fishing, but they still encounter disparities in accessing marine resources and participating in decision-making processes concerning climate justice matters (Thomas et al. 2021).
The intensified challenges not only hinder women’s access to income and resources but also exacerbate the burden upon young girls. Compelled to support their mothers, young female adults and girls frequently forego education, perpetuating the cycle of gender-based inequality. In low-income economies, the secondary education completion rate for girls stands at only 36.9% compared to boys (Wodon et al. 2020). A deeper analysis uncovers that this inequality originates from child marriage and early parenthood factors, which disproportionately contribute to gender disparities. As a result, these young girls are kept away from learning about adaptive technologies, sustainable agricultural approaches, and new meteorological patterns—thereby increasing their vulnerability to the greater impacts of climate change. The Analytical Study on Gender-Responsive Climate Action by the United Nations (2019) emphasizes even further that achieving fair access to knowledge products and human rights for women, especially within smallholder households, could lead to a remarkable increase of 20%–30% in agricultural yields. Additionally, this could potentially help alleviate hunger for 100 million–150 million individuals and, over the long term, result in a reduction of 2.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2050.
Elevating gender equality in climate action: A path to equitable and resilient outcomes
Beyond contributions to the labor force and production, women and young girls offer gender-unique perspectives and experiences that hold immeasurable value in shaping holistic and inclusive strategies and policies for addressing long-term climate adaptation. Various international frameworks—such as the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, and the Asian Development Bank’s Strategy 2030—underline the importance of gender equality and women empowerment in climate action. According to the Re-Envision Resilience report by UN Women (2021), women and the most vulnerable groups are at the forefront of climate justice, but their voices continue to be marginalized in decision-making processes at multisectoral levels, from the household level to local and national governance levels.
Women and girls in the local community face unparalleled vulnerabilities due to traditional gender roles, legal disparities, and limited access to finance and resources. Indigenous women, in particular, hold traditional knowledge and practices that can enrich the effectiveness of resilience strategies and contribute to localized solutions that more effectively address greenhouse gas emissions. However, gender disparities obstruct the realization of benefits inherent in women’s unique perspectives, which could be harnessed for localized climate resilience measures. In coastal countries, women play a pivotal role in the marine tourism industry, constituting 54% of the domestic workforce (World Tourism Organization 2021). Nevertheless, working limitations due to pressures related to work-life balance and motherhood channel them into lower-paying roles with limited opportunities for career advancement. This situation is particularly prominent in sectors heavily affected by the adverse impacts of climate change.
As climate change exacerbates disaster risks and heightens food and water insecurity, unequal power structures and societal expectations give rise to gender obstacles that restrict women’s capacity for climate mitigation and adaptation. Statistics show that, in 2004, approximately 75% of deaths caused by the Southeast Asian tsunami were women (Oxfam International 2004). By bringing all voices to the discussion table, we not only can shift away from the gender narrative of victimhood but also acknowledge women and empower them as agents of change in building a sustainable future. According to the Drawdown Lift Advisory Council (2023), women and girls sector solutions can contribute to nearly 10% of the overall reduction in emissions impact. Thus, their leadership holds the potential to infuse policies and initiatives with inclusivity. Such an approach can be a cornerstone of comprehensive climate adaptation policies to guarantee better access to resources, technology, and opportunities, reflecting diversity and the power of collective action at all levels.
Gender inequality, coupled with the climate change crisis, is one of the most severe challenges of our time. As the climate crisis is not gender-neutral, it is urgent and imperative to incorporate gender equality into climate action. Women’s unique perspectives, experiences, and insights can offer essential elements to develop gender-responsive solutions for effective policy frameworks. These frameworks will support women and girls in climate change adaptation and mitigation, with such multifaceted initiatives helping to bring us closer to the achievement of the SDGs by 2030.
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Lowder, S. K., J. Skoet, and T. Raney. 2016. The Number, Size, And Distribution of Farms, Smallholder Farms, and Family Farms Worldwide. World Development 87(1): 16–29.
Oxfam International. 2004. Oxfam International Tsunami Fund Final Evaluation Series: Summary Report. Oxfam International (accessed 12 August 2023).
Thomas, A., S. Mangubhai, M. Fox, S. Meo, K. Miller, W. Naisilisili, J. Veitayaki, and S. Waqairatu. 2021. Why They Must Be Counted: Significant Contributions of Fijian Women Fishers to Food Security and Livelihood. Ocean and Coastal Management, (205)105571.
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Wodon, Q., A. Onagoruwa, C. Malé, C. Montenegro, H. Nguyen, and B. De La Brière. 2020. How Large Is the Gender Dividend? Measuring Selected Impacts and Costs of Gender Inequality. Cost of Gender Inequality Notes Series. World Bank.