In this article I intend to communicate why gender matters in climate change vulnerability assessments. I would like also to demonstrate with findings from my research work on gender and climate change in Namibia why it is vital to recognise gender differentiated vulnerabilities to impacts of climate change for effective and equitable adaptation.

Existing literature and on-going research indicates that climate change causes significant gender differentiated vulnerability because impacts are gendered. The combination of socially ascribed roles and social inequalities can be linked to men and women’s vulnerability to climate risks. Women and men in Namibia are affected differently by climate change. Men and women’s coping and adaptive capacities to respond to impacts of climate-related risks are also different owing to the fact that the vulnerability and capacity of an individual to adapt to a changing climate is related to the access to and control of natural, social, physical, political and financial resources.The marginalised, unemployed women and children from rural Namibia have the lowest access to these resources. As a result, social vulnerability posed by climate change hinders progress in addressing gender inequalities and women empowerment in Namibia.

It is vital to know that when the rain-fed crop and animal production that sustain the majority of the rural population (57%) in Namibia is affected by climate risks it has negative implications on food security and livelihood stability for both men and women. Socio-political, economic, governance and cultural factors influence the level of exposure to these risks. This causes vulnerability to climate change to be socially differentiated. Furthermore, the social differentiations are also gendered. Therefore, Climate Change Vulnerability is not gender-neutral.

My on-going research on gender and climate change had identified issues that cause the factors (described below) to differentiate climate change vulnerability by gender, ethnicity, age and class in rural Namibia. This implies that although women carry the heavier burden of climate change risk, women in Namibia are not homogenous due to class, ethnicity, kinship and age.

Decision-Making

Traditionally, the majority of men play leadership roles in societies and hold decision-making positions both at national and local levels. Women in Namibia are ascribed with lower positions in any given setting in Namibia. Moreover, women have unequal opportunities to participate in all capacities regarding climate change decisions. Discussions held in communities usually targets De Jure heads of households, the majority of which are men. Women from Herero, Himba, Wambo, Kavango and Caprivi tribes are not encouraged to participate in discussions at community level. This is particularly unfortunate, given women’s close relationship with natural resources and awareness of conservation and potential adaptation measures. Although women are ascribed lower positions in the Namibian society, opportunity for women empowerment exists because women are increasingly serving in community-based natural resources management committees.

Differential access to information, assets, financial resources and technical skills

Lack of income and employment opportunities increases the vulnerability of households and limits the opportunities to explore off-farming livelihood strategies. Women in rural Namibia, compared to their male counterparts, are reported to have limited technical skills required to acquire employment or generate income. Additionally, they have limited access to capital, productive land, knowledge and services. These factors decrease resilience and adaptive capacities of men and women in different ways.

To sum up, women generally lack the technical skills to participate in formal employment and are therefore engaging in informal economic activities. Income generating capacities between men and women also differ. In general men are better prepared for climatic events than women due to their improved socio-economic situations. Access to information and ownership of technical skills increase the capacity of men than women, thereby making it easier for male members of households to migrate in search of employment. Women form rural Namibia have also noted that culturally it is easier for a man to leave the family behind compared to a women, especially among the youth. Therefore, mobility and migration is another non-climatic driver of climate change vulnerability among women in rural Namibia.

I conclude this article with a key message for climate change adaptation planning in Namibia. Efforts aimed at building resilience of rural communities ought to take cognisance of social differentiation and diversity of rural population. Equitable and effective adaptation pathways can only be achieved if community needs are differentiated by gender, age and other social grouping. We should all move away from the notion of defining local communities as homogenous entities. 

About the author: Margaret Angula is an Environmental Studies Lecturer at the University of Namibia. She is also a social dfferentiation research lead for the Namibian Case study on Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Region (ASSAR) Project.