Fleeing climate crises: The impacts of climate change and displacement on women

 

It is estimated that one-third of all global migrants have been forced to move as a result of climate change. A disproportionate 80% of these climate migrants are women. Experts predict this number will grow as climate change increases the likelihood of natural disasters and makes parts of the globe uninhabitable, forcing people to move both within countries and across borders.

What gender-specific impacts might women face as the climate crisis worsens? What is climate displacement and how is it affecting women? And what can donors do to support gender-sensitive responses to climate change and climate displacement? 

The climate crisis impacts women differently  

A growing body of research finds that women are disproportionately affected by climate change; roughly 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty are women, many of whom are reliant on natural resources for their survival, which are increasingly at risk as climate impacts worsen. This indicates that mitigating climate change is important to global gender equality. It also highlights the importance of considering gender in efforts aimed at supporting adaptation to climate change.

Women living in poor communities are already seeing their household responsibilities increase as climate change has intensified, complicating agricultural work and domestic tasks such as fetching water and firewood. In many low- and middle-income contexts, women make up the majority of the agricultural workforce, meaning they bear the brunt of extreme and inconsistent weather patterns and events. This has been linked to increased rates of school dropouts, as girls are forced to spend more time helping their mothers manage the growing workload.

UN Women calls climate change a “threat multiplier” by which they mean it exacerbates social, political, and economic crises and conflicts. These conditions put women at greater risk of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, and early marriages.

Climate change also threatens women’s health, both directly during climate disasters and extreme weather events, and indirectly, because of increases in vector-borne illnesses and decreases in service and healthcare provisions.

Of course, the way these impacts play out in the lives of women around the world varies according to circumstances beyond just their gender. Interactions with other axes of inequality — such as race, class, sexual orientation, disability status, age, etc. — can exacerbate the impacts of climate change on women’s lives, as well as the lives of people of all genders.

According to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors committed US$25.6 billion in bilateral ODA on climate change mitigation in 2020, with US$11.1 billion going to projects with climate change mitigation as its principal goal. They committed US$29.5 billion on climate change adaptation, though just US$5.8 billion went toward projects with adaptation as a principal goal.(1) Just over half (US$17.2 billion) of DAC donors’ funding for climate change adaptation targeted gender equality in 2020. Of this, a measly 5% (US$812 million) went toward projects that targeted gender equality as a principal goal, with gender equality as a main objective and fundamental in its design and expected results.(2)

Women bear the brunt of climate displacement 

Climate change has already forced millions to leave their homes, the majority of whom are low-income people from under-resourced communities. “Climate displacement” has been caused by chronic environmental issues that make agricultural life difficult (such as inconsistent weather patterns), and acute climate events that destroy and displace communities (such as hurricanes or extreme flooding).

While most climate displacement occurs within country borders, with people moving from rural to urban areas, many are also moving across borders. Current international law does not allow people to claim asylum based on the climate crisis. In 2020, the United Nations Human Rights Committee made a judgment which found that a state will be in breach of its human rights obligations if it returns someone to a country where their life is at risk due to the climate crisis, but the ruling is nonbinding. This leaves those displaced by the climate crisis in a precarious legal position.

There is still insufficient data and research on women’s experiences of climate displacement, but the existing research reveals that women are not only more likely to move because of climate change, but often bear the heaviest consequences of this displacement. This is true for both women who leave and those who stay.

Women displaced by climate change face many of the same challenges women have always faced while migrating; globally, women have a harder time getting access to economic opportunities, face higher risks of physical and sexual violence, and experience more health issues while migrating. Since 2011, approximately 12 million women in over 25 countries have lost access to contraception because of climate change-induced displacement, according to an analysis from MSI Reproductive Choices.

In some communities, men tend to migrate in search of work, leaving women behind. This can increase household responsibilities for women and exacerbate existing inequalities. There are, however, also examples of climate-related displacement shifting gender roles in a way that creates different opportunities for women. A 2020 Foreign Policy article suggests that in Kenya, climate change has made it necessary for men from the semi-nomadic Samburu tribe to leave for months at a time in search of suitable pasture, leading to more women seeking formal employment and managing household finances.

Donor and policymakers should ensure a more just and equal response to climate change adaptation and displacement  

Climate change poses a real threat to global development and to gender equality, which is fundamental to its success. To ensure a more gender-equal response to climate change and the displacement and migration it causes, donor countries should support gender-sensitive adaptation efforts aimed at minimizing the pressures on climate-affected communities that push people to migrate. At the same time, donor countries have a role to play in facilitating safe migration for those forced from their home by climate change, because at its core, migration itself is an adaptation strategy for people living through the climate crisis.

Climate change adaptation

As this analysis has explained, gender plays an important role in determining the impacts of climate change on people’s lives. Unless women are considered in the planning and execution of adaptation projects, many of those in greatest need of support are at risk of being excluded. As the UNDP put it, “gender-responsive adaptation is better adaptation.” This means that in addition to scaling up funding for climate change adaptation overall, donors should put greater emphasis on funding adaptation projects that integrate gender equality considerations.

Given the importance of factoring gender into all efforts to combat climate change, donors and the global community should set clear targets for the share of their climate investments that will target gender equality outcomes. They can follow the lead of Canada, which announced at COP26 that 80% of its climate finance will target gender in the next five years. Though largely gender blind, the Paris Agreement does mention the importance of “gender responsive” approaches to climate change adaptation. At COP25 in 2019, the Conference of Parties adopted a Gender Action Plan (GAP). At COP26 in 2021, momentum to put gender at the forefront of climate action continued to build, spurred on by the work of the feminist action for climate justice at the Generation Equality Forum earlier that year. One of the most significant pledges made was the ‘Glasgow Women’s Leadership Statement on Gender Equality and Climate Change’, which was signed by 14 countries at COP26. The statement remained open for signatures until the 66th meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW66) in March 2022, which focused on gender equality in the context of climate change, environmental, and disaster risk reduction policies and programs. Despite all these pledges and agreements, there remains no clear funding target for climate change adaptation projects that integrate gender-related objectives for donors to work toward.

Donors and policy makers should also work to elevate women to positions of power to ensure women are involved in decision-making relevant to climate change adaptation. Reversing the under-representation of women in climate-related decision-making is an effort that needs to span all levels; for example, women represented only 33% of the lead negotiators at COP26. Donors interested in reducing climate displacement should invest in projects that foster strong political institutions and ensure impacted communities — and crucially, women — have a say in how they adapt to climate variability and environmental changes.

Climate displacement

As the climate crisis rages on and continues to push populations out of climate-vulnerable areas, donors could do more than invest in “adaptation in place” through projects that proactively support migration as a means of adapting to climate impacts.

For domestic displacement, donors should be investing in urban areas to ensure they are equipped to accommodate influxes of people and funding projects that create economic pathways for those displaced to find meaningful work opportunities. Towns around the world, partially supported through ODA, are showcasing approaches to safely accommodating climate migrants, from ensuring children remain in school to creating housing for incoming migrants. For women, it will be vital to make sure that there are safe places to sleep, economic opportunities available, and access to gender-specific health services.

For displacement across borders, donors and policy makers can take a more proactive approach to facilitating migration as a form of climate adaptation. It’s also crucial that donors champion international law recognizing climate refugees and acknowledge “deadly environments” caused by the climate crisis as a form of persecution from which people deserve protection. There are current and prospective legal solutions that could be made available to those displaced by the climate crisis such as creating a legal category for climate refugees. Without proper legal protection, those displaced by the climate crisis — especially women — become further vulnerable to poverty and exploitation.

Lastly, in order to create policies friendly to women displaced by the climate crisis, further research is needed. This means collecting climate- and gender-specific data on migration, as well as more case studies that explore what policies do and don’t work. Donors have a role to play in funding such research, as well as collecting better data tracking their funding for projects at the nexus of gender, climate change, and migration.

Climate change and climate-related migration will simply be a fact of life in the coming decades. The challenges associated with these changes are already clear; overcoming these challenges will require collective action on the part of the global community including appropriate policies and adequate funding from donor countries to ensure a just and equal response to the climate crisis.


  1. Note these numbers are not mutually exclusive as some funding flowed to projects that targeted both mitigation and adaptation. For more on the OECD’s methodology for tracking climate change, see the Donor Tracker’s Climate sector page.
  2. For more on the OECD’s gender markers, see the Donor Tracker’s Gender Equality sector page.

Mélissa Godin is an award-winning journalist writing about climate change, gender inequality, and human rights abuses. Mélissa has worked for TIME Magazine, the New York Times and produced a documentary as a National Geographic Storytelling Explorer. Her stories have appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, Reuters, Vogue, the New Humanitarian, the Globe and Mail, among others. Read more of her work here.