Cultural conceptions of gender roles: The need for a differentiated approach to resilience

Sarah Opitz-Stapleton, INTASAVE-CARIBSAVE Group.

Access to education, healthcare, financial resources, information, and reliable and clean food and water supplies are some factors widely known to influence an individual’s vulnerability or resilience to weather hazards and climate change. It is not controversial to say that climate impacts are inherently local. However, other inequalities among women, such as their age, as well as their own perceptions of gender roles and physical capacity, play a very important yet under-emphasised part in climate adaptation and resilience.

A study of the gendered impacts of weather hazards on women, girls, and boys in two counties in Yunnan Province, China, revealed that cultural conceptions of appropriate gender roles varied among surveyed ethnic groups. These differences matter in terms of women’s and girl’s capacities and opportunities for dealing with weather hazards, and ultimately climate change.

Local economies in Yunnan are changing rapidly. Many younger women of the dominant ethnic groups – Han, Hani, Miao and Zhuang – are migrating to neighbouring provinces for jobs, along with men of all ages, instead of working as farmers. It is predominantly older women, of 35 years or more, who stay behind as smallholder farmers or farmers on cooperatives.

Among these older women, their skills and capacities for dealing with weather hazards vary. While all of the older women surveyed were illiterate, women from the Miao and Hani ethnic groups were less likely to be able to access social services and support before and after hazards than Zhuang women. This is because of cultural traditions in which women moved to their husband’s village and often lost ‘hukou’, legal registration granting access to services in one’s birth area.

Older Hani women, by contrast, had greater financial independence than women from the other ethnic groups. Many older Hani women do migrate for work on a short-term basis and are able to control the money they earn. They use this to purchase their own cell phones and often motorbikes, and were more informed of weather early warnings and able to take action.

Girls from the Hani and Miao ethnic groups tended to drop out of school early (before age 16) to migrate for work. They face the additional pressure of having to be married before they can migrate, putting them at risk for serious health complications if they have children at such a young age. Zhuang girls, meanwhile, are being encouraged to stay in school longer so that they can take on more skilled and better paying jobs than factory positions.

Differences in education and access to information about weather hazards exist among children as well. Miao children in some parts of Yunnan have lower access to TV or other sources of information to find out about weather hazards or what to do. This is of particular concern as there are quite a few households where both parents have migrated for work, and so the children raise themselves.

The challenges women, girls, and boys face in dealing with today’s weather hazards offer important insights into their abilities to be resilient to future climate, socioeconomic, and cultural change. Cultural differences in gender roles strongly influence the skills and capacities of women and girls in different ethnic groups.

Lumping all women together in standardised ‘gender-friendly’ adaptation initiatives runs the risk of ignoring the very real differences between groups of women in acting as agents of change. Socioeconomic inequalities among women are perpetrated along age, cultural conceptions of appropriate gender roles, and physical capacity. Adaptation programmes and policies put forth by the government and community groups must acknowledge cultural differences in gender roles, to prevent some women being left behind.


Sarah Opitz-Stapleton is a Senior Scientist and Head of Climate Resilience with the INTASAVE-CARIBSAVE Group. She specialises in the intersection of climate services, socioeconomic vulnerability, and climate risk, particularly in the Asia-Pacific.


The INTASAVE-CARIBSAVE group is a leader in developing new approaches across science, policy and practice to support decision makers and communities in building resilience. For more information about the cultural and age differences in gendered impacts of weather hazards and climate change in Yunnan, you can download the full report here.