Gender and migration in the context of climate change

  • 2016•03•21

    by Ann-Kristin Matthe

    Photo by UNU-EHS/Andrea Milan

    Gender is an often discussed but neglected perspective of climate change. Migration is one adaptation strategy to climate change, and since women and men experience migration differently, a gendered perspective offers important guidance for the formulation of policies. It is obvious that gender plays a role in the development of migration policies and its importance was even recognized in the 2015 Paris Agreement. In Pacific Island states the impacts of climate change are already visible and local women are potentially more vulnerable compared to men. The United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) conducted participatory sessions with Pacific islanders in Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru, to supplement its household survey in the Pacific with further details on the perception of climate change and migration among women and men. Here, I delve into how this research contributes, amongst others, to the development of gendered migration policies in the context of Pacific climate change.

    Pacific climate change impacts and the vulnerability of women

    In the Pacific Climate Change and Migration (PCCM) project, UNU-EHS joined forces with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), as well as the University of the South Pacific (USP). The PCCM project shows that in the past decade, most households on the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru experienced impacts of climate change like incremental sea levels rise, saltwater intrusion and drought. UNU-EHS gathered in-depth information on key risks and problems as well as on potential solutions in participatory “Livelihood Risk Ranking Sessions”.

    In a study on the linkages between gender and climate change in the Pacific, UNDP found in 2013 that the “degree to which people are affected by climate change impacts is partly a function of their […] gender”. The underlying reason, provided amongst others by the Women’s Environment & Development Organization and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), is that women are seen to be more vulnerable compared to men. This applies particularly to women living in coastal communities like the Pacific Island states, where agricultural land is sparse and natural resources like water are limited.

    Migration of women and men as adaptation strategy

    In the context of climate change, the PCCM project suggests labour migration as a way to diversify household income. The International Labour Organization (ILO) remarks, “with the increasing adverse impacts of climate change” it becomes more and more difficult to offer sufficient work opportunities for women and men on their respective islands. Therefore, migration offers an adaptation measure that allows another source of income under different environmental conditions. Mirjana Morokvasic’s view of migration as a “household’s strategy for survival” confirms migration as one way to create more resilient households. As the Head of the European Union Delegation for the Pacific, Ambassador Andrew Jacobs, explains, the IPCC stresses “it is clear that there is the potential for human movement as a response to climate change”.

    Pacific islanders use adaptation strategies to reduce their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. In the UNU-EHS Livelihood Risk Ranking women suggested moving inland as reaction to floods and coastal erosion or high tides, whereas men proposed building sea walls. And while both sexes emphasized a need for improvements in water management and called for governmental assistance, women suggested moving to places with lower salinity intrusion. Men mentioned overcrowded homes due to immigration to internal key destinations, amongst other issues. Male participants pointed out that this might lead to security implications, which were important to them. Thus, differences between women’s and men’s responses are visible. Participating women mentioned migration with a positive connotation while men focused on other measures and pointed out potential challenges arising from migration.

    It is important to analyse the differences between female and male migrants. Focusing only on men as migrants leaves half of a society’s resources unused or underused, thereby limiting the possibilities for economic and social progress. Gender inequality also limits household’s abilities to build sufficient resilience to the impacts of climate change. In 2008, Hon. Amberoti Nikora, Minister for Internal & Social Affairs from Kiribati acknowledged that there has been a lack of attention to the gender and climate change nexus and stressed “the importance of the inclusion of gender in developing mitigation activities” as well as in adaptation measures. The latter point is further supported by Ruth Lane and Rebecca McNaught in their study ‘Building Gendered Approaches to Adaptation in the Pacific’.

    However, increased awareness of gender equality and women’s empowerment has not yet translated into sufficient labour migration options for women. This is especially true for employment overseas because at present, men dominate temporary migration like seasonal workers programs. In this regard, IOM calls for further research on the understudied connection between migration, gender and the environment. A starting point for gender research on the topic is the Institute of Development Studies’ 2005 BRIDGE report on gender and migration, followed in 2011 by the BRIDGE report on gender and climate change. One point of on-going discussion regards social and cultural factors present in some SIDS. Bandita Sijapati for example suggests in her 2015 IOM article ‘Women’s Labour Migration from Asia and the Pacific: Opportunities and Challenges’ that patriarchal cultures can be an obstacle to female outmigration. While these concerns exist, Patricia R. Pessar and Sarah J. Mahler argued in the 2013 article ‘Transnational Migration: Bringing Gender in’ that women who were able to migrate, might then actually be able to gain more from migration in terms of empowerment compared to men.

    The inclusion of gender in the 2015 Paris Agreement and national policies

    The 2015 Paris Agreement shapes as central international document future climate change policies and is especially relevant for SIDS in the Pacific, as outlined by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014. Gender is included in the perambulatory and operative part of the 2015 Paris Agreement that was adopted at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The inclusion of gender in the Paris Agreement’s operative paragraphs signals progress from prior agreements. Paragraph 5 of Article 7 in the Paris Agreement “acknowledge[s] that adaptation action should follow a […] gender-responsive […] approach” and paragraph 2 of Article 11 mentions that “capacity-building should be [… a] process that is […] gender-responsive”. Regarding (female) migration, the Paris Agreement acknowledges the rights of migrants in the context of climate change action and sets out plans for a task force on climate change displacement. Thus, references to gender and women’s empowerment appear in the text but are still to be integrated in all areas of the agreement.

    While the 2015 Paris Agreement sets out a global framework to combat climate change, at a local level in the Pacific the development of migration policies in the context of climate change is currently on-going. The analysis of gendered migration patterns in the context of climate change offers the possibility to account for differences in drafting of migration policies. Thereby, positive impacts are spread in the origin country among migrants, their families and friends, as well as in the destination country’s society. According to Nana Oishi, states and policies play an important role in influencing female migration by facilitating or hindering the emigration and immigration of women compared to men. Asian countries like the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia have adopted a liberal approach with “active state policies that provide information, assistance and networking opportunities to actual and potential migrants”, Jayati Ghosh writes for the United Nations Development Program. In the Pacific a lack of comprehensive scientific data has until now limited the possibilities to develop a migration policy for Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru.

    The inclusion of gender data in important policies is a step forward, and more research, such as the UNU-EHS’ detailed reports, can contribute towards formulating future gendered migration policies.