Climate change and gender: Are we risking perverse gender outcomes?


Climate change and gender: Are we risking perverse gender outcomes?

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Story detail:
Date: 31st March 2017
Author: CDKN Africa
Type: Feature
Country: Africa

Gavin Quibell, Strategic Climate and Water Advisor and Lene Lundsgaard, Anthropologist, raise some warning flags about how ill designed, climate-resilent water projects can end up undermining women. Learning from recent experience provides some important guidance for future projects.

Climate change and gender - Are we risking perverse gender outcomes?

About 46% of the world’s population is rural. In Africa it is 60%, and in the least developed African countries over 95% of the population are rural and very poor. These communities are still largely dependent on growing their own food, and are often feudal and male dominated societies. Climate change is likely to disempower women in these communities by introducing food insecurity, and making villages dependent on food from outside. Speeding up the delivery of small-scale water and irrigation infrastructure is, therefore, critical to achieving the gender equality, and our efforts at building climate resilience must further empower women. But there are pitfalls, as is illustrated by the following story out of Zambia..

Women in a small rural community had to walk several kilometres to a source of water on a river. The women would typically take the whole day in collecting water, washing clothes, and discussing village life.

To reduce the burden on women, a well / borehole was sunk in the village. One of the first things that happened was the village Headman appropriated the well, putting a lock on it and controlling access. Nonetheless, more ready access to water lived up to its promise. The women had more time, and small scale irrigation of vegetable gardens became possible. The men of the village immediately put the women to work in larger fields, producing more than the village’s immediate food needs.

The men took the excess food into the nearest town to sell, bringing back social issues to the village with their new found wealth.

No matter how well intended the infrastructure intervention was, it ultimately had a perverse outcome. Nonetheless, the experience has interesting lessons:

  • The existing river water supply came at considerable climate risk. Longer droughts and increased upstream demands may result in periods where there was no water in the river. Some infrastructure was necessary to build climate resilience.
  • While the infrastructure built may have increased climate resilience, it exacerbated gender inequality by providing an asset that the men could appropriate.
  • The infrastructure freed up time and created choices for the women, but they did not remain in charge of that time, or those choices.

Whether these impacts would have been avoided if women were involved in the design of the system, or whether they could have foreseen the dangers, is somewhat moot. Clearly, perverse outcomes would have been much less likely if the women were consulted first, if that consultation was done by women, and if the infrastructure focussed on enhancing the existing powers the women had.

Food security, climate infrastructure and gender

In most rural poor communities women are responsible for feeding their families and providing water. They make the decisions on growing, storing, allocating, and cooking food. Women and girls are primarily responsible for collecting water. While this places a heavy and unequal burden on women, it is deeply connected to their identity as mothers and caregivers. The importance of food as a basic need for the village can be gender empowering in this context even in traditionally male dominated rural societies.

Climate change can threaten this traditional power balance. We are likely to result in an overall decline in the major cereal crop yields. Longer and more intense droughts, hotter weather and longer periods between rainfall events, together with higher flood risks will threaten food security. Women feel these impacts not only on a physical level, having to work even harder to ensure food security, but also on a deeper emotional value-based level as food providers.

Infrastructure that builds climate resilience through more assured water for domestic and irrigation needs, safe food storage, and flood defences will reduce the burden of climate variability on the women. This can free up their time to increase access to education, healthcare and paid work. But, as we have seen from the example above, infrastructure may introduce further gender bias through its misuse or appropriation by the men. This can be related to perceived inherent gender qualities; men are understood to be natural leaders, aggressive, and thieves; whereas women are peaceful, talkative, and weak (The women of Kalima, Misili and Sande villages in the lower Shire valley, Malawi).

Unfortunately, these perceptions are often underpinned by bitter experience, and there are many cases where water and food security schemes have been appropriated by the men, or the local traditional leadership. These gender perceptions challenge who is ultimately in control of managing the infrastructure, even with gender balanced management committees. While women are understood to have better cooperation qualities, men are perceived as capable in leading and protecting the infrastructure. These views are deeply entrenched in the community, at least in rural Malawi, and will not be addressed by making sure women are equally represented on management committees.

Gender sensitive rules

The production of excess food also risks creating further gender imbalances. The appropriation of the excess food by the traditional leadership and men will undermine the power that women have as the custodians of food security. Given these risks, any infrastructure delivered to build climate resilience should be supported by principles to guide the management committees. These rules must respect the role of traditional leaders and men (otherwise they are a non-starter in rural Africa), while protecting and enhancing the existing roles of women in maintaining food security, as well as the sale of food produced in excess of the community’s needs.

These rules must ensure that the infrastructure is owned by the entire village, with the committee members serving as trustees. They must allow the village to hold the committee accountable for the transparent, fair, gender equal and corruption free operation of the system through defined mechanisms. Participation must be entirely voluntary – allowing women to withdraw if it enhances gender imbalances. This provides women with a hold over the operation of the infrastructure.

Enhance existing roles, not western concepts of equality

The delivery of infrastructure to build climate resilience must be accompanied by mechanisms that recognise, protect and enhance the existing role and power women have with respect to the food production and use cycle, as well as the collection of water. This is largely about making sure women stay in charge of the livelihood choices and time that the infrastructure can bring.

Most importantly, efforts to incorporate gender into climate resilience projects must recognise the realities of gender roles and imbalances in poor rural communities in Africa, rather than trying to impose a westernised perspective of gender equality.


Occasionally CDKN invites guest bloggers to share their opinions on The guest authors' views do not necessarily represent those of CDKN or its alliance organisations.

Write to the authors with any comments or leave a comment below:

Gavin Quibell: Strategic Climate and Water Advisor (, and

Lene Lundsgaard: Anthropologist (

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