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Where are African women in climate change policy?

Climate change is not experienced equally – Africa is more vulnerable to its effects than other continents, and African women are more vulnerable than men. A key underlying factor is women’s reliance on the natural environment. This article explores how African women can be prioritised in climate change policy through gender mainstreaming, focusing particularly on the agriculture sector. 

The impacts of climate change are disproportionate. While African nations are among the least responsible for contributing to global emissions, African populations are at significantly higher risk of experiencing the negative effects of climate change because of their widespread reliance on the natural environment. Additionally, African women are more vulnerable than men – UNDP projections indicate that about 90 million women in Africa will be food-starved by 2050. Evidence shows that climate change impacts are gendered, and women are bearing the brunt. 

Despite the clear need, gender is rarely a specific focus of climate change policy. Gender mainstreaming involves an active accounting for gender in any policy or policy-related initiatives so that particular vulnerabilities across the gender spectrum are addressed, and institutional systems do not exacerbate gender inequalities. Any climate policy, development plan, or implementation strategy should account for gender and these measures should be supported by budgetary provisions. This is particularly important in the various women-dominated sectors in Africa, such as small-scale food processing, subsistence farming, and petty food trade.  

Gender mainstreaming in East Africa 

In East Africa, most nations have incorporated women to some degree in climate change policy. Uganda and Tanzania, in particular, are leading the way in developing explicit gender mainstreaming strategies. Yet, researchers found areas for improvement:  

  • Gender issues remain thought of as ‘women’s issues’. Policy documents from both Uganda and Tanzania give more detail on women’s vulnerability but are either silent on men or mention men as only dominant power holders. This fails to give weight to the full gendered nature of climate change. There needs to be clear indication of men’s vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities as well.   
  • Gender mainstreaming is not consistent across government levels. In both countries, national-level policies recognise the need for gender equality but fall short in clear strategies or means of addressing issues. Local (district) level policies in Uganda, where gender integration is more prevalent overall than in Tanzania, reflect the greatest level of gender integration (65%) in policy, outlining specific strategies and budget allocations.  
  • Gender policy or policy-related initiatives still need to be adequately incorporated into budgets. Officials in both countries expressed that they did not know how to develop and implement gender-disaggregated activities into budgets. Activities budgeted for in Uganda include awareness creation (e.g., educating women), support activities (e.g., goods supplied to women and youth), celebrations (e.g., International Women’s Day), gender mainstreaming (e.g., women’s councils), and allowances for community development officers. In both countries, actual budgets were often lower than approved budgets, since approved budgets reflect operational figures which may not be fully realised. 

Policy-related gender initiatives have also yet to address structural inequalities. For example, adaptive capacities for women affected by climate change remain low, and the markets available to women producers remain limited and/or unsupported by institutions. 

Gender mainstreaming in agriculture 

One particular policy area within which gender mainstreaming is expedient in Africa is agriculture. Women in Africa dominate the informal economy in small-scale food processing, subsistence farming, and petty food trade.  In 46 out of 53 African countries,  40% or more of the agricultural workforce is represented by women, while in sub-Saharan Africa, women make up 60-80% of smallholder farmers. These are precarious jobs – informal, without contracts or income security – with low earnings and/or productive gains in light of low adaptive capacities to climate change impacts. As women are largely responsible for tending to the natural environment, with its variable rainfall and temperature patterns affecting production patterns, their poverty levels and food insecurity in rural areas are increasing.  

These struggles intensify when climate-induced migration is considered. When climate disasters strike, men in the household migrate to cities in search of employment, leaving women behind with the primary care role. In South Africa, the most rural provinces of the Eastern Cape and Limpopo are home to the majority of female-headed households – a reflection of the limited mobility of women.   

While these women might not be directly part of urban migration patterns, there is still a vital connection to food supply. The domestic, informal urban food market is much more accessible to rural and peri-urban women smallholder farmers than export markets. Relatedly, for the fast-growing, lower-income African urban population, the domestic produce from these women farmers often outcompetes imported produce. Approximately 70% of sub-Saharan Africans are reliant on primarily subsistence, rain-fed agriculture – an industry dominated by women. This means that the rapidly growing African urban population will increasingly rely on rural and peri-urban women farmers for cheap produce. This also implies that climate change will threaten both the livelihood and food security of women farmers, alongside the food security of the growing urban population. 

Gendered policy in this area would assist in alleviating the threats to livelihoods and food security for both the farmers and the increasing urban population. Such policies might consider directing research into the specific adaptation needs of small-scale women farmers, alongside the barriers they face in accessing domestic food markets, followed by appropriate budgetary allocations. Such provisions should be mindful of success factors and lessons learned from nations like Uganda and Tanzania where gender mainstreaming continues to be experimented with in climate change and agriculture policy. 

The holistic nature of climate change means that everyone is affected, though some more than others. On the African continent in particular, the gendered dimensions of climate change have impacts rippling beyond the rural-urban boundary and across the gender spectrum, to affect the livelihoods and food security of all. Institutional provisions aimed at developing adaptive capacities should go in tandem with a gender mainstreaming policy perspective, with a focus on women’s empowerment in the various sectors in which they dominate.  

Editor’s note: This article is part of our gender equality series.

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