When Climate Change Leads to Fear and Migration, Women Bear the Brunt


Dec 11, 2019


Image Credit: WaterAid/ Abir Abdullah

Migration is a volatile byproduct of climate change, an inevitable occurrence for many farmers whose crops fail to yield harvest due to increasing droughts and floods. When these men leave to hunt for other sources of income, the women in their families usually remain to care for the fields, especially in rural regions of Asia and Africa. Left in these poor working conditions, women are bereft of agency and ability to make decisions for themselves, according to research published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Migration does aid in providing a source of income, as the men who migrate do send money back to their families. However, this income source is unreliable and irregular, placing the anxieties of survival, caring for children, and keeping a house running upon women. In the absence of a reliable source of income and other supportive infrastructure, women work harder, in bad conditions and for lower wages. This directly impacts their nutrition and overall well-being, according to the study’s findings.

Researchers utilized data from 25 countries in Africa and Asia, including India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and found that environmental stress weakens women’s agency, especially women belonging to marginalized castes and classes. This occurs even when social structures are supportive, affecting their adaptability to climate change, and leaving them vulnerable to its serious consequences. The areas studied included 14 semi-arid regions, five river deltas, and six mountainous and glacier-fed river basins. Livelihoods in these regions involved agriculture, livestock management, fishing, wage labor, small-scale trade, and business. These regions face a range of potential ecological disasters including erratic rainfall, droughts, floods, erosion, landslides, heatwaves, and cyclones.

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“It is so difficult to get labor to work on our farms, especially during harvest season and when they do come, they demand too much money for us to pay… I have started working more on the farm now, I do not have a choice. My husband goes for construction work in the neighboring town, and if I do not do agricultural work the crops will die,” said one study subject, interviewed in a semi-arid region in South India. Another woman from Pakistan added, “Men can easily migrate for work, whereas we have to stay here (at home) to take care of the family. After floods, my daily wage decreased from PKRs. 200 (Rs. 92) per bale of cotton to PKRs. 75 (Rs. 30).”

“In a sense, women do have voice and agency, as they are actively engaging in both production and reproduction, yet this is not contributing to strengthening longer-term[ability to adapt], or indeed their well-being,” Nitya Rao, Ph.D., study author and senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia, said in a statement.

Rao added, “Our analysis suggests that some common conditions such as male migration and women’s poor working conditions combine with either institutional failure or poverty to constrain women’s ability to make choices and decisions. However, these barriers, if addressed in creative ways, could potentially strengthen adaptive capacities, and enable more effective adaptation.”

To help aid women placed in vulnerable positions due to climate change, researchers suggest the optimization of social protection systems such as public grain distribution systems, pensions, and social grants, which can relieve the pressure and anxiety surrounding survival can help strengthen communities. Researchers hope that their findings can help aid the efforts of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction and the Sustainable Development Goals.


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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