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Gender, environment, resilience and development

A woman collects water for her family, Burkina Faso. ©Ollivier Girard/CIFORA woman collects water for her family, Burkina Faso. ©Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Environmental and climate change, and its associated policies and strategies, have significant effects on gender relations, especially in developing countries. Poor women face gender-specific inequalities and barriers – such as lack of access to decision-making fora and resources – that hinder their ability to adapt to climate change and to events such as drought, soil degradation, and deforestation. Removing these barriers is crucial to achieve the objectives established in major international frameworks, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, or the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Moreover, incorporating the notion of resilience - the ability of people, households, communities, societies, and systems to mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks, adversity and stresses in a way that reduces vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth - can help policymakers and practitioners advance sustainable development while addressing gender inequality. Resilience features as a priority in the EU Global Strategy, which was presented in July by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission, Federica Mogherini, and sets out the EU's core principles for engaging in the world. The emphasis on resilience is timely, given the growing awareness in the development and humanitarian community of the need to develop responses that address both short-term needs and long-term structural inequalities, in ways that empower all genders. Effective resilience-enhancement recognises women's participation both as a means and an end, while acknowledging gender dynamics within households, communities and societies, and the value of women's contributions.

The Sustainable Development Goals show how different development objectives are deeply intertwined. Initiatives that simultaneously advance gender equality, sustainable development, and resilience will therefore allow for better compliance with global commitments.

How does environmental and climate change affect men and women differently? 

Many factors are at play when considering environment and climate change from a gender perspective. While environmental and climate change are indeed universal phenomena, their adverse effects are also differentiated. Research has shown that gender equality should be seen as a prerequisite for sustainable development, given how the habits, patterns and practices of women are, globally speaking, more sustainable than those of men. However, many groups – including women – are disproportionately affected in relation to their 'contribution' to environmental and climate change. In terms of voice and participation in planning and decision-making, women are often underrepresented, whether in local settings or in global fora such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Moreover, the roles traditionally assigned to women and girls (e.g. as food growers, fuel and water gatherers, carers) make them more dependent on natural resources and stable climate conditions. For instance, extreme weather events often cause increased burdens from care work, still considered a female responsibility in many societies. An example from Mali shows how climate change-induced drought has adversely affected cash crops – traditionally a male responsibility – thus putting pressure on women to secure water, food, and alternative incomes for their families. Globally, natural disasters lead to more casualties among women than men, especially where the socioeconomic status of women is particularly low. However, while the majority of European studies show that women are more at risk of dying in heatwaves, social isolation - particularly that of elderly men - could also be a risk factor, all of which reflect how men and women are affected differently, and the social roles at play.

Gender roles and relations also determine the access to and control of environmental resources, and the goods and services they provide. A recent study by UN Women, the UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative and the World Bank shows that, despite comprising a large proportion of the agricultural workforce, women in sub-Saharan Africa are consistently found to be less productive and less likely to grow cash crops than men, mainly due to their limited access to agricultural instruments and machinery. This gender gap is costly, and reducing it can contribute to poverty reduction and greater food security. As for the energy sector, decentralised clean energy systems offer opportunities for women's empowerment and involvement in the energy value chain locally, and to link small-scale solutions to national policy processes.

Experience shows that in order to reduce poverty, strengthen resilience, advance sustainable development, and support gender equality, policy and programming need both quantitative and qualitative data and indicators that identify the different needs of men and women. Improved environmental performance does not automatically generate gender equality, meaning that gender must be more comprehensively integrated into policy, programming, budgeting, and implementation, combined with data collection and the monitoring of gendered outcomes. 

It is also important to note that a simplified language of victimhood can risk fuelling negative stereotypes. For instance, managing and caring for a household in the face of climate environmental change requires ingenuity and resilience, yet women who bear this responsibility are often assumed to be 'naturally' more vulnerable. The resilience of households and communities often depends on the resilience of women, who possess knowledge, skills and experience that are crucial to identifying local solutions. Policies and programmes should therefore address women's vulnerable positions, while also recognising their contributions to sustaining the environment and building resilience.

Examples of EU commitments

The EU's firm commitment to gender equality as a cross-cutting theme has been reaffirmed many times, most recently by the EU Gender Action Plan (2016-2020) adopted in 2015. 

As an example, the EU supports efforts to reverse land degradation in sub-Saharan Africa, paying particular attention to the role and rights of women in relation to land use, and strengthening the critical role of women in agroforestry-based value chains. The EU also works closely with The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), a non-profit, scientific facility that conducts research on forest and landscape management on a global scale. CIFOR leads the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which embeds gender into each research theme. Addressing gender gaps and inequalities in terms of access, land rights, and decision-making is vital to improve forest management policies, and to ensure the equitable distribution of resources and benefits. 

Another example is the GCCA+ (Global Climate Change Alliance) – established by the EU in 2007 – which supports the implementation of programmes related to National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and facilitates dialogue and knowledge sharing. One of the themes of the recent GCCA+ Global Learning Event (September 2016) was precisely the gender dimension of climate action. The GCCA+ seeks to strengthen and incorporate gender equality as a cross-cutting goal in relation to climate change, where key EU priorities include integrating gender considerations into medium- and long-term adaptation programmes – to ensure that GCCA+ activities contribute to reducing, rather than exacerbating, gender inequalities – as well as capacity building and technology support. This is done to generate gender-positive impacts at all levels of decision-making, and to strengthen the focus on resilience-building, where women and girls play an important role. 


Addressing gender, climate change, environment, resilience, and development simultaneously creates a more nuanced understanding of the complex ways in which different individuals and groups relate to, and are affected by, environmental change. This asks fundamental questions about who decides, acts, and benefits.

Paying attention to this nexus matters, not simply because it is recommended by researchers, enshrined in global agreements, and highlighted by case studies, but also because they increase the effectiveness of development initiatives; by creating inclusion and legitimacy, implementation in communities is also facilitated. The 2030 Agenda is expected to deliver on gender equality, justice and environmental sustainability – this calls for a global commitment to action and learning, and common support for projects that integrate this crucial perspective.


Keywords: gender, environment, resilience, development, 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

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last update
21 December 2016

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