African women bear the brunt of climate change

The AU must shift its focus to the intersectional impacts of climate change, gender and migration.

As climate change becomes a leading migration driver in Africa, it is disrupting rural and urban livelihoods and systems. It also increasingly contributes to displacements within countries and across borders. The double burden of climate change and gender inequality renders women more vulnerable because they are less likely to have access to financial and social assets. These include land tenure, social and legal services, political participation, paid livelihoods, governance and infrastructure.  

There is an increasing policy appreciation in Africa of the nexus between climate change, migration and gender issues. In March 2022, African countries adopted a common African position to integrate gender into the climate change action agenda. In October 2022, the African Union (AU) held the seventh Pan African Forum on Migration. The theme was ‘Addressing the impact of climate change on human mobility in Africa: Building adaptation strategies and resilient communities’.

The forum brought together AU member states and stakeholders to deliberate on continental responses, gaps and opportunities in climate change and migration adaptation. However, significantly more action is needed to address the intersectional impacts of climate change, gender and migration.

AU frameworks should be revised or new ones drafted to reflect the triple burden faced by African women

Meaningful action cannot occur without gender equality. More needs to be done to increase gendered data, involve more women in decision making and project design, and boost access to gendered finance that considers mobility.

Gender and climate change

Data measured particularly for sub-Saharan Africa show that women are responsible for 80% of food production and more than 60% of all employed women work in agriculture. However, due primarily to gender inequalities, roles and responsibilities, women have less access to land, productive assets, social protection and technology, which are central to production.

Labour markets across most of Africa are also heavily gender-segregated and many women occupy low-paying, insecure occupations. They carry a disproportionate unpaid work burden and rely more on natural resources and climate-sensitive sectors for their livelihoods. Gender inequality, thus, causes more women to be poorer, have less education and have greater exposure to health risks, and makes them vulnerable to climate changes.

They must travel further or work harder to find firewood and water or to plant crops. This not only reduces time spent developing adaptation strategies, but also often exposes them to risks including violent attacks. It also threatens their economic opportunities and, overall, increases household burdens as women are central to sustaining homes. In sudden onset disasters, women are disproportionately affected through limited access to services, relief efforts and decision-making, and their role in taking care of families and their health.

Gender and mobility

Although often framed as a failure, migration is an effective adaptation that can empower women through economic and skills development. It can increase autonomy, mastery, remittances and social standing, and disrupt gender norms and inequality. Although these norms and behavioural restrictions may limit women’s ability to make independent decisions, migration offers options. It enables those with climate-vulnerable livelihoods to diversify their income and spread the household risk.

Many women rely on natural resources and climate-sensitive sectors for their livelihoods

Consequently, more women are migrating independently for work or education, or to meet the needs of their families. According to the 2022 Africa Migration report, for example, the number of female international migrants in Africa increased by 69% between 1990 and 2020.

Migration, however, can also deepen inequalities and expose women to new risks and vulnerabilities, including greater exposure to multiple dangers along clandestine migration routes. They are at risk of abuse, discrimination, exploitation, gender-based violence and trafficking, and carry more family and reproductive burdens. Women are also at higher risk of involuntary immobility and being left behind while caring for households and children. They remain in the poverty trap, often facing diminishing returns from their livelihoods, particularly agriculture.

Climate change is driving rapid urbanisation. While urbanisation provides greater access to economic, social and political opportunities and broader services, it adds risks from unequal access to work, housing, health and education compared to men in cities. This is largely because women migrants are usually concentrated in unregulated, unskilled and undervalued sectors.

Improving interventions

While most multilateral climate funds started out gender blind, the number of gender-responsive climate finance interventions have grown significantly over the past decade. Nonetheless, funding to avert, minimise and address climate mobility, especially that for African countries, is woefully inadequate. Climate-linked mobility is a new programme area. To date, most financing has come through migration allotments from humanitarian, development and home affairs types of funding.

Africa has some of the lowest per capita climate inflows in the world. According to the African Development Bank, the continent is owed almost 10 times the global climate finance it received between 2016 and 2019. Finance flows targeting adaptation in Africa fall billions of US dollars short of the lowest-adaptation cost estimates.

Even worse, most climate financing (74%) is loans and other non-grant instruments that must be repaid, by even the least-developed countries. Grants, concessional finance, insurance and forecast-based financing are more appropriate for fast and flexible disbursement but are inaccessible to most vulnerable groups. Gender-responsive climate finance increased from about US$80 million in 2010 to US$1.6 billion in 2019. However, more than three-quarters of the decade’s total public climate-development finance in Africa failed to consider gender.

Role for the AU

The AU could enhance continental responses by better addressing the intersectional impacts of climate change, gender and migration. Several AU frameworks focus separately on climate change and migration. These include the AU Climate Change and Resilient Development Strategy and Action Plan (2022 to 2032) and the Migration Policy Framework for Africa (2018 to 2030). While the action plan tries to mainstream gender considerations, it notes mobility only in the context of security.

Migration can deepen inequalities and expose women to new risks and vulnerabilities

The framework is largely gender-neutral and does not robustly address the nexus between climate change and mobility. The existing frameworks should be revised to include targeted policy interventions that consider the triple burden faced by African women or establish new instruments that reflect the nexus.

To be effective, efficient and sustainable, gender equality must be at the forefront of climate action. A closer interrogation of datasets that capture the myriad and complex gendered impacts of climate-induced migration is necessary. While the AU’s seventh migration forum was necessary to conceptualise responses and policy decisions, greater effort is needed to document and respond to the gendered climate impacts of this migration.

Failure to adequately include gender equality in regional and continental policies, interventions and financing will prove detrimental to urgently needed climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. Gender-neutral approaches ignore and exacerbate inequalities and undercut women’s contributions as powerful stakeholders and change agents.

Safe, orderly, voluntary and well-managed migration is an important strategy for women and vulnerable groups. Mobility solutions should avert and minimise forced displacement, harness the development potential of migration and protect women and children while they move. They should also provide them with access to skills and reduce their exposure to climate risks.

When women do not want to move, adaptation projects should protect them and ensure their circumstances are not adding to their vulnerability. Women should be active agents in developing solutions that build on their capabilities, knowledge and experiences.

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