Why is gender relevant in climate and environmental migration? 

Climate change, environmental degradation and disasters do not affect everyone equally; gender, age, ethnicity, and income level, among other factors, can influence how individuals experience and are affected by environmental stress.  

Women in contexts of deep-rooted gender inequality, as well as children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and those belonging to ethnic minorities are at disproportionate risk of being affected by the impacts of both sudden and slow onset events and processes (e.g. hurricanes, storms, floods, land degradation, rising temperatures, and sea-level rise among others). Gender roles and responsibilities, together with a deep economic and social gender inequalities and underrepresentation in decision-making at various levels, can put women in conditions of vulnerability. When extreme events, such as storms and floods, occur, for example, poor women are 14 times more likely to die than men; this is due to factors including higher responsibilities at home, little decision-making power within the family, and lack of education or access to information. These factors have hardly been considered in prevention, preparedness and responses to disasters and climate impacts which have mostly been designed and implemented by men.  

Gender inequality can also shape women’s migration decision-making in slow-onset situations and create barriers that often limit women’s opportunities to use migration as an adaptation strategy. This does not mean that men are not vulnerable to environmental stress, but rather that women often find themselves in a more vulnerable position due to deeply rooted imbalanced power relations and gender roles. 

As an example of this imbalance, in the Upper Indus Basin, a region particularly affected by climate change, only men are allowed to migrate as an adaptation strategy, while women are left to take care of the household, natural resources and agricultural work. In other instances, such as in the United Republic of Tanzania, women face limited access to household resources, in particular land, and are compelled to move into the cities to look for better employment opportunities. 

Both when they are “left behind” and as migrants, women can thus be disproportionally affected by the negative impacts of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters because of socio-cultural gender inequalities.  

In low-income countries, women who stay behind are particularly vulnerable to climate change since they are highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihood. They also face higher agricultural workloads and responsibilities or sometimes increased dependence on other family members. In some cases, where cultural norms restrict women’s freedom of movement, or when psychological factors motivate their immobility decisions, it can be more difficult for women to seek help or shelter when disasters occur. For example, when cyclone Gorky hit Bangladesh in 1991, 90 per cent of the fatalities were women; this percentage is not surprising considering that most women in the country cannot swim, that their movements are restricted by clothing and responsibilities for children, and that they face an increased risk of sexual and physical abuse outside of home, as shown by multiple studies.  

Equally when they migrate, women experience migration differently to men, facing higher vulnerability to risks such as abuse, violence, discrimination and exploitation in situations of displacement as well as in labour migration (often as domestic workers), and along the migration route, more in general.  The risk of increased gender-based violence (GBV) affects women regardless of their income levels, for instance, in the year following 2005 Hurricane Katrina in the United States, the rate of GBV experienced by women more than tripled, with many of them living in temporary shelters.  

Overall, the vulnerability of women, whether migrating or not, in the context of climate and environmental change and disasters has been thoroughly reported. A key takeaway from this discussion should be that far from being intrinsic to being a woman, gendered vulnerabilities (and mobility options) must be understood as part of larger psychosocial factors including gender identity, patriarchal attitudes, religious or traditional practices, shame and honour, gendered division of labour, and internal psychological processes, such as feelings and emotions.  

However, less research seems to have focused on the positive role of women in climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster risk reduction (DRR) when they have mobility options as well as when they remain at home.  

This article focuses on the opportunities that can arise when gender equality is brought forward in migration, climate change adaptation and DRR policies and programmes. It highlights three main ways in which SDG5 on “gender equality” could help to achieve greater and more sustainable outcomes in the context of migration as a climate change adaptation and/or DRR strategy.  


What can international priorities tell us? 

Integrating gender perspectives in migration, climate change adaptation and DRR policies and programmes is crucial to achieving the SDG 5 on gender equality, building back better and leaving no one behind, as pledged by the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. This requires governments and relevant stakeholders to adopt inclusive, gender-responsive and human rights-based solutions and approaches.  

At the international level, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) offers some guidance in this direction by calling for the recognition of women’s independence, agency and leadership in migration and for moving away from the narrative of victimhood. Equally, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 - 2030 encourages women’s participation and leadership in the design and implementation of disaster risk reduction policies, plans and programmes. Last but not least, the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Plan of Action, a milestone in the advancement of gender equality, also highlights a strong connection between women and the environment and emphasizes the importance of including women’s voice in policy formulation and decision-making, especially in relation to natural resource management. Therefore, international instruments set a clear framework of reference to develop and implement gender-responsive policies and programmes at the regional, national and local levels.  

Including gender equality considerations across migration, disaster risk reduction and climate change areas of governance can help reduce vulnerabilities linked to socio-economic inequalities, enhance livelihood opportunities for women, increase resilience and adaptation capacities through their participation in environmental projects, and ultimately contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. Examples of the compound benefits of including gender considerations can be found in projects like the “Sustainable Agriculture with Gender Inclusion and Participation in Quito” initiative, run by the Ecuadorian city to improve climate change adaptation and food security in the urban area. Working directly with women, the programme has offered them trainings and leadership opportunities in urban farming; these have not only translated into alternative and more sustainable livelihoods for the women involved, but also into reduced carbon emissions and increased resilience and adaptation capacity of the city.  

While empowering women can improve the resilience of societies, on the other hand, neglecting the specific needs and untapped potential of half of the members of the society risks exacerbating the vulnerability of both individuals and communities to natural hazards and the adverse effects of climate change, including by causing displacement. In Nepal, for example, the non-inclusion of gender considerations and non-participation of women in community disaster planning, preparedness activities and training, has led women to be less able to protect themselves, and those who depend on their care (children, the elderly and people with disabilities), from the negative effects of flooding.    

Commitment to SGD 5 on “gender equality” can provide a global action tool to address the gender-specific vulnerabilities linked to environmental change through more inclusive practices as well as an international framework of reference to evaluate the possible benefits of migration, climate change adaptation and DRR policies and programmes.  

These dimensions are especially reflected in the SDG targets 5.A “Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws”, 5.C “Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.” These targets are complementary and in line with SDG target 10.7 “Facilitate orderly, safe, and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies” and SGD target 13.B “Promote mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in least developed countries and small island developing States, including focusing on women, youth and local and marginalized communities”. 


3 ways in which gender equality interlinks with climate migration as an adaptation strategy 

SDG 5 on “gender equality” provides three main entry points: 

      1. Securing equal land rights for women can reduce forced migration due to the environment 

Women represent over 40 per cent of the agricultural labour force in the developing world and the main force behind subsistence production in many communities. Women, especially indigenous women, also tend to have particular knowledge of ecological linkages and fragile ecosystem management. However, globally, women constitute less than 15 per cent of landholders and a significantly smaller number of landowners than men, meaning that they have little influence on the management of land and natural resources. Even when men migrate and women remain to take care of the household, they are often faced with new and greater responsibilities which are not necessarily matched by greater support. Additionally, studies have shown that women can face an increased burden in labor-intensive activities but not an equal increase in managerial powers, which are usually retained by men.  

In short, the deterioration of natural resources can directly affect people’s well-being and displace entire communities from income-generating activities; women face greater risks of being affected by the impacts of climate change and disasters, including displacement, but have little power to prevent or adapt to these phenomena.   

Therefore, programmes that facilitate women’s participation in land management, as promoted by SDG 5 target 5.A and 5.C, that spread awareness about women’s positive role in environmental conservation, and that support them during male out-migration, could be beneficial to entire communities, in addition to women’s own resilience. This could be achieved through participation in agricultural or water management groups, for example. Ensuring women have access to information and knowledge, as well as active and decision-making roles in such contexts all year round can help prevent crop failure and minimize damages from flooding, while encouraging sustainable livelihoods and avert displacement due to livelihood loss. In addition, increased involvement of women in land management can translate into greater household resilience to climate risks and food insecurity by allowing them to build soil control measures and implement conservation efforts. As a result, secure access to land can also reduce forced migration due to loss of livelihoods. 

Overall, through policies and programmes that encourage women’s participation in the sustainable management and use of natural resources and access to income gains, women strengthen their resilience and also sustain their families and the development of their communities, making gender equality everyone’s gain. 

        2. Increasing mobility options for women contributes to climate change adaptation 

Women are not always free to choose whether to migrate or not, either because they lack the resources or because patriarchal social structures prevent them to do so. When they do migrate, women’s choice is often restricted to occupations in the domestic sphere or care work.  

Women’s migration can however contribute valuable assets to the household’s capacity to adapt to climate change, including financial remittances, skills, knowledge, and technology transfers. Although their wages are typically lower, migrant women are more likely to send home a higher proportion of their earnings and to do so more frequently. Moreover, the remittances of women migrant workers are more likely to be spent on health, education, family, and community development, and could increase the capacity of home communities to adapt to climate change. 

Gender-sensitive migration policies and programmes should be focused on enhancing women’s freedom to choose whether to migrate or not and on expanding the range and safety of choices available to them i.e. facilitating regular, orderly and safe pathways for migration in the context of disasters, climate change and environmental degradation, in line with GCM Objectives 2 and 5. This involves facilitating access to occupations in other sectors than domestic work through temporary and seasonal migration programmes abroad. It also includes offering trainings for rural women who wish to enter the labour market in urban areas, as well as ensuring that they have access to medico-psychological assistance and justice systems. Programmes and policies should also aim to lower the costs of remittances, given the comparable benefits that these have on the household and community when women send them. 

Case study:  

In the Pacific, a region with some of the lowest rates of gender equality and women’s empowerment, women are less likely to have ownership over land, property and finance, and have limited decision-making power. Consequently, their ability to migrate is also constrained. This can be seen in the overrepresentation of men in temporary and seasonal migration programmes, which are important in climate adaptation as they allow to diversify household income and the transfer of remittances.  

The Pacific Climate Change and Mobility (PCCM) project (2013-2016), funded by the European Union and implemented by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), encouraged the expansion of mobility opportunities for Pacific Islanders, including women, and increased awareness of how women’s migration can benefit society as a whole. As such it is a positive example of how the benefits of projects that include a gender-equality perspective could be leveraged to change social behaviours over the long term.  

Now in its Phase 2, funded by the UN Human Security Trust Fund, the Enhancing Protection and Empowerment of Migrants and Communities Affected by Climate Change and Disasters in the Pacific Region project (2019-2021) led by IOM and implemented together with UN-ESCAP, ILO, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS) and the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD), seeks to strengthen the capacity of migrants and communities to access labour mobility schemes. To this aim, partners are working to increase opportunities to diversify livelihoods including training and skills development programmes targeting women, and opening migration pathways, such as the Kiribati Australia Nursing Initiative. 

      3. Gender-sensitive reintegration of returning migrant women supports livelihoods and climate action 

Reintegration of returning migrants, just like migration, is a gendered process. Not only is the return decision often taken by men, but reintegration is also often more difficult for women than for men. This is particularly true for unmarried women or single mothers, and especially when returning to countries with specific gendered norms and expectations. Women are overall less likely to reintegrate, as the process can be more problematic because of socio-psychological effects, family relationships, financial difficulties and unemployment. For example, women in Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, may face problems in accessing information, reintegration services, obtaining bank loans and credit, and accessing public employment services for labour market insertion upon return. They may also face stigma attached to women’s overseas employment. All this may hamper women’s ability to reintegrate into the economic, socio-cultural, safety and security processes which are crucial to manage risks related to disasters and the environment. 

The reintegration process, however, also carries opportunities for women's empowerment and can have a positive environmental impact, just like migration. Reintegration programmes can promote gender equality and environmental sustainability by, for example, creating livelihood opportunities for women returnees in green sectors. Such opportunities could include contributing to sustainable ecosystem management, agroecology, natural resource conservation, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction, among others. In addition to the well-researched benefits of reintegration at the individual level, this can also contribute to strengthening the resilience and adaptation of communities of origin, to mitigating environmental drivers of migration and reinforcing social cohesion, by pulling together different actors.  

At the same time, women can acquire key information and skills that bolster their resilience, benefit from new income opportunities, and be empowered within their communities of origin. This requires a good understanding of the local socio-cultural context and of individual-community dynamics where programmes are implemented. 

In Senegal, for example, IOM promoted “green” assisted reintegration to reduce the effects of climate change on migration via a French-funded project. Reintegration activities in agriculture work were proposed to a group of returning migrants, which also promoted women’s participation and ownership while ensuring that their empowerment aligned with the socio-cultural environment in their community. This required understanding the relationship between natural resources management, climate resilience and gender dynamics as well as the interlinkages between family responsibilities, migration and income-generating activities in the region. 


Climate change, environmental degradation and disasters can affect women disproportionately because of socio-cultural gender inequalities and power relations, with repercussions on entire societies. Not all women, however, are equally vulnerable, as vulnerability is largely a function of the degree of gender inequality they experience, as well as other factors. 

Commitment to gender equality in the design and implementation of migration, climate change adaptation and DRR policies and programmes can help address the environmental drivers of migration and increase the resilience and adaptation of communities at large, while also helping to address the root causes of vulnerability.  

SDG 5 can be a catalyst for positive change if women have more access to land rights and information about green farming practices. They can also better contribute to sustainable development and climate resilience when their agency is recognized, and they have more freedom and options to move, as advocated by international migration and DRR instruments. Finally, future programmes should pay more attention to women returnees and help them attain a role in the creation of environmentally sustainable communities. Effective climate change adaptation, well-managed migration, and gender equality bring everyone to the table, recognizing the value of women's knowledge and their potential as agents of change. 


Additional Readings 

-    Disasters Deconstructed: Gender (23 March 2020)

About the author: 

Martina Castiglioni 
Martina was an intern with the IOM Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division between January and August 2020, supporting the team with policy, research and communications. She completed her undergraduate studies in International Relations with an emphasis on Migration and Refugee Studies at the Webster University, in Geneva, Switzerland and she undertaking a Master in Disasters, Adaptation and Development at King’s College London, in the UK. Previously, Martina was the President of her University’s student-led humanitarian NGO and a volunteer with the Geneva Red Cross at the local center for refugees’ integration. Already interested in migration issues, she became increasingly fascinated with the impact of climate change on population movements and development. 
This article was reviewed by Ileana-Sinziana Puscas, Project Officer for the IOM Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division and Lee Kanthoul, IOM Gender Specialist.

This article acknowledges a definition of gender which is not restricted to the binary categories of biological sex. Despite focusing on the case of women, it recognizes that discussions on gender and vulnerability in the context of migration, climate change, environmental degradation and disasters also concern men and LGBTI people, while intersecting with issues of race, class and other factors. 

SDG 5 - Gender Equality
SDG 13 - Climate Action