Cities, women and climate change

Although there are still opponents of climate change as a human-made phenomenon, it is now commonly recognized that it will have significant impact on environment and livelihoods throughout the globe. Greenhouse effect, severe weather events, raise of sea level and lose of biodiversity will affect people across the borders, regardless of their economic status, race or gender. However, climate change is likely to accentuate the gaps between the world’s rich and poor. It is widely accepted that women in developing countries constitute one of the poorest and most disadvantaged groups in society  (Denton 2002:11). In this literature review I will briefly describe reasons and evidence of higher vulnerability of women exposed to climate change and necessity of analysis urban context separately. I will look for examples of women’s agency in facing climate change.

Climate change gender neutral?

Although climate change has significant impact on all humans, it is proved that it has more severe implications on women’s livelihood. Generally the poorest populations and marginal groups are impacted the most; nevertheless, there can be a differential effect on men and women as a consequence of their social roles, inequalities in the access to and control of resources, and their low participation in decision-making (Carvajal-Escobar, Quitero- Angel, Garcia-Vargas 2008:1).

It is because they more rely on natural resources that may be threatened by climate change. Although traditionally it is man who is responsible for providing financial resources, women are responsible for securing basic needs such as water, food and shelter. Changes of temperature and extreme weather events impede the ability to buy or grow food or access water.

In spite of difficulties in securing basic needs, climate change has an impact on women’s health. According to research conducted after the Asian Tsunami, women and children are 14 times more likely to die during natural disaster than man. It significantly decreases their security if climate change fuels extreme weather events. This difference in vulnerability derives mostly from difference in socialisation where girls are not equipped with the same skills as their brothers, such as swimming and tree climbing. For example, it has been documented that women in Bangladesh did not leave their houses during floods due to cultural constraints on female mobility and those who did were unable to swim in the flood waters (Bridge 2008:6). They are at risk even at the aftermath of the disaster when material losses may force girls to drop school in order to support their households. Because of inadequate conditions in shelters and temporary housing without privacy they are more likely to become victims of domestic or sexual violence, perpetuated by men threatened by the lack of control over the livelihood of their families. In spite of different risk related to climate change that women need to face they still have not been included in decision-making process about coping strategies and environmental policies.

Land degradation, desertification and extreme weather events force communities to leave their land and look for better opportunities in other place. This mobility usually targets urban settlements perceived as a chance for better life. Although cities offer job and educational opportunities as well as basic services, migrants usually reinforce poor populations, already more vulnerable to climate change because of severe leaving conditions.

Climate change and city

Although climate change has and will have tremendous impact regardless geographical location, the urban areas are particularly vulnerable due to density and concentration of people, buildings and wealth. These factors are connected to progressive modification of environment which obstruct earth capacity to deal with the severe weather events. Moreover, urban settlements are often located in hazardous areas such as the edges of the tectonics plates, near big water reservoirs or at the coast which facilitate their development. Nevertheless, cities contribute to their increasing vulnerability by high greenhouse gases emission caused by concentration of consumption and production. While they are hit by boomerang effect of non sustainable development, they may be agents of change due to high social and economic capitals and innovative potential.

That’s why urban areas need to be analyse independently due to their higher vulnerability, because rapid urbanization, coupled with global environmental change, is turning an increasing number of human settlements into potential hotspots for disaster risk (UN-HABITAT 2007: 163). To properly analyse and plan climate change adaptation and mitigation gender dimension should be take into account as the factor determining one position in the era of climate change.

City, women and climate change

Linkage between environment and gender has been the issue of interest for years. However, nexus between this factor and climate change was perceive recently as well as the role of cities in this process. As Gotelind Alber, the author of report which links all three element writes:

Urban climate policy started in developed countries with a strong emphasis on mitigation actions, while climate change engagement of cities in developing countries is still rare. The reasons for this include a lack of awareness of the problem and in particular of the role of cities as part of the solution, lack of longer-term considerations and institutional and financial constraints. As for the cities that are actually working on climate issues, the gender dimension is virtually absent in their plans, policies and programmes (2011:10).

The researcher sees the main sources of this situation in the underrepresentation of women in decision-making, lack of sex segregated data, knowledge and awareness of gender issues. Nevertheless, there are several international standards and norms which may be used as a tool in including woman in the urban climate change policies.

CEDAW, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, written in 1979, obligates all parties to act against discrimination against women. In 2009 members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, concerned about missing gender dimension in climate change discourse stated:

its concern about the absence of a gender perspective in the United Nations Frame- work Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other global and national policies and initiatives on climate change. (…) Gender equality is essential to the successful initiation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of climate change policies (CEDAW 2009).

Several councils and commissions address the issue of necessity of mainstreaming gender in all environmental policies and mechanism. For example, the Beijing Platform for Action from 1995 or The Commission of the Status of Women, which devoted their forty-sixth session in 2002 to the issue of natural disasters and gender-sensitive system of reduction, response and recovery.

The necessity of including gender dimension in urban settlements has got attention recently. In United Nations’ documents gender equality was mentioned for the first time in The Istambul Declaration and the Habitat agenda as one of seven commitments. Further Declaration on Cities and other Human Settlements encourages member states underlines need for formulating and strengthening policies and practices to promote the full and equal participation of women in human settlements planning and decision-making (Albert 2011:13). Moreover, UN-Habitat Governing Council produced numerous resolutions linking the issue of women’s situation and climate change. Among many it is worth to mention resolution on women’s rights in humans settlements development or on gender equality in human settlements.

The important guidelines are included in UN-Habitat’s Climate Change Strategy 2010-13. It not only underlines women’s vulnerability to climate change, but appreciate their role in upgrading living conditions through grassroots initiatives.

It highlights women as important actors for adaptation and mitigation strategies, natural resource management, conflict resolution and peace building at all levels. It calls for gender indicators to assess the impacts of climate change, in order to shape the response accordingly; and for supporting the response capability of vulnerable groups by strengthening their social, natural, physical, human, and financial assets (Albert 2011:14).

All documents mentioned above provide sufficient framework for including gender dimension in analysis and strategies for combating climate change as well as for including women in adaptation and mitigation actions.

Women as agents of change

Many data prove that women are usually victims of consequences of climate change. However, their vulnerable situation does not deprive them of agency. Women can and do make a difference. They are knowledgeable and experienced in adaptation and mitigation strategies, natural resource management, conflict resolution and peace building (UN-Habitat 2009:28). They use these skills both on personal and community level to slow down climate change and improve their lives.

According to studies analysed by Albert, women are much more aware of climate change and its implications. Moreover, they are more likely to take personal actions to mitigate climate change. It is because they are responsible for providing necessities for household and they are often responsible for most of consumption decisions so they are able to notice changing conditions. Not only they consume less but they are willing to reduce or change habits, using more local products or renewable source of energy. Beside decisions on the household level women in many parts of the world organized themselves in the communities to mitigate and adapt. Although their actions cover many fields from preventing land degradation, introducing green energy to reforestation, I will mention initiatives concern natural disaster what will show the complexity and multitude of activities concerning one phenomenon.

One of the initiative is mapping of hazardous areas which is conducted by many local organization united under Huairou Commission. By collecting data about areas at risk of floods and other natural disasters or food insecurity they gain strong argument for discussion with local and national governments. This process is usually followed by trainings both for officials and members of community about way to adapt to current situation and mitigate consequences of climate change.

Raising awareness of the communities is an important part of women’s activity. Examples can be found in the Global South as well as Global North, inhabited as well by marginalized communities. Coastal Women for Change is an initiative started by several dozen women from New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, who lost their houses and jobs. It helped them realise that such severe weather events may happen again because they are enforced by climate change. Rights now they are providing emergency preparedness trainings along with educational courses and childcare. Few members won seats on the mayor’s planning commission what enable them to secure that the voice of poor and minority communities will be heard (Yes! 2011).

High vulnerability to climate change is usually increased by inadequate and hazardous housing conditions. This is interconnected with problems with tenure rights, which is the case of many poor communities living in slum areas. Firstly, these kinds of settlements are usually located in hazardous locations, more likely to be affected by natural disaster. Secondly, lack of secure tenure discourage them from upgrading their houses what make housing structures unable to resist floods or hurricanes. Moreover, not regulated status restrain the access to basic services, such as water supply, sanitation or garbage collection. The solutions for this situation is broadening awareness about the rights and strengthening women networks in order to secure tenure rights. One of the examples is Conamovidi group from Lima. Through a community risk and vulnerability mapping process, women found that poor families are living in particularly unsafe conditions and that single mothers often have an acute need for secure tenure but their lack of land titles means that their needs are often ignored by government (Huairou 2011). The information and knowledge they obtained with support of GROOTS Peru enable them to start discussion with local government about including them in urban planning and decision-making processes.


Although climate change has an impact on all livelihoods, women are particularly vulnerable. Nonetheless, gender dimension is not commonly recognized in the debate about climate change, especially about urban areas, which are significantly influenced by climate change. Women are usually excluded from decision-making process about urban climate change policies. But they are not accepting the role of victims and become the agents of adaptation and mitigation on the local level.


Carvajal-Escobar, Y., Quitero- Angel. M., Garcia-Vargas, M. 2008. ‘Women’s role in adapting to climate change and variability’. Advances in Geosciences, 14:277-280

Alber, G. 2011. Gender, Cities and Climate Change.

BRIDGE. 2008. Gender and climate change: mapping the linkages. A scoping study on knowledge and gaps. Institute of Development Studies: Sussex.

CEDAW. 2009. Statement of the CEDAW Committee on Gender and Climate Change.

Denton, F. 2002. ‘Climate change vulnerability, impacts, and adaptation:

why does gender matter?’ Gender and Development, 10:20.

Huairoun Comission. 2011. Changing climate, changing leadership: grassroots women’s groups model climate resilient development. Last modified March 3.

UN-Habitat. 2009. ‘Climate change is not gender neutral’. Urban World: Climate Change: Are cities really to blame?.

UN-Habitat. 2007. Enhancing urban safety and security. Global Report on Human Settlements 2007. London: Earthscan.

Yes!. 2009. Climate Hero Sharon Hanshaw. Last modified November 10.