COP20: Climate change negotiators must consider the role of rural women

Claudia Ringler, International Food Policy Research Institute

As smallholder farmers in many parts of the world, women play a crucial role in food production. Yet they are the least equipped to adapt their farming practices to climate change. The reason? They have less access and control than men over key assets, such as capital, agricultural information and training, farm inputs, and other resources related to agricultural production. This week, as world leaders gather in Peru to participate in the climate change negotiations, it is imperative that we turn our attention to rural women and focus on policies that increase their ability to cope with climate change.

Yet at the outset we are constrained in our ability to do this very thing. Too many institutions responsible for leading efforts to adapt to climate change in developing countries have no way of tracking how men and women deal with climate change differently. For example, three quarters of development agencies in Ethiopia do not collect, analyse, or report gender-disaggregated data. Collecting data only at the household level, they operate under the assumption that all household resources are shared equally, that all decisions are taken jointly, and that all household members benefit.

In fact, not only is there a disparity in asset ownership, but women’s assets – such as jewellery – which tend to be more liquid, are often the ones sold to cope with climatic shocks. This leaves women in a worse position to address future shocks. Social protection schemes should respond to this reality, and enable women to hold onto their assets during drought, floods, and other severe climatic shocks, for instance by providing them with insurance targeted to their needs.

There are also large knowledge gaps between men and women – both about climate change and the ways to adapt to it. For example, women in our Bangladesh case study put a high value on insuring against agricultural risk. But because they had less education and lower financial literacy than their male counterparts, they were at a disadvantage when facing insurance purchase decisions.

Similarly, our research shows that in Mali, men are more likely than women to receive information on climate change adaptation strategies through social networks. In Kenya, research found that women were less likely to know about climate smart agricultural practices – but that those who knew about them were as likely as men to adopt the practices.

Women also often have less access to agricultural technologies that support adaptation to climate change. For instance, in Mali, men used irrigation to increase the value of their total production – almost enough to offset the negative impact of climatic shocks. Women, on the other hand, had limited access to irrigation or other farm technology, such as motorised tillers, that would increase productivity and stability.

Results from a recent project on women’s assets and climate change suggest that group-based approaches may increase women’s assets and strengthen their risk-management capabilities. In Bangladesh, for example, women benefit from credit groups when climatic and other shocks occur. However, women participate in fewer groups and spend fewer hours in group activities. Even when they belong to a group, they are less active in decision-making. Policymakers should seek ways to increase the active participation of women in decision-making, rather than focusing only on increasing the number of women who participate in group activities.

Lastly, securing equal rights for women on paper is not sufficient – policymakers and programme implementers must follow through to make sure women understand and can act on their options. Ethiopia, for instance, implemented a highly successful reform of land rights that was gender sensitive, yet women knew less about the reform and as a result were less likely to adopt climate-smart agriculture practices, such as soil conservation or planting trees and legumes. Increasing knowledge of land rights may be equally – or even more – important than new agricultural technologies in achieving climate resilience in Ethiopia.

This year’s COP20 presents an opportunity to focus on the links between rural women, agriculture, and climate change. Let’s support those deciding upon our collective fate in Lima to negotiate for mitigation and adaptation strategies that meet the needs of women as well as men.


Claudia Ringler is deputy director of the Environment and Production Technology division at the International Food Policy Research Institute.