Our Burning Planet


Women are locked out of the climate adaptation plan — we need to align culture and tradition to fix this

Women are locked out of the climate adaptation plan — we need to align culture and tradition to fix this
Illustrative image | Sources: A woman collects water in Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images / Neil Baynes) | Homes in rural KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: Leila Dougan) | Rawpixel

As primary users of natural resources, and those often most affected by environmental degradation, women have a key role to play in management and decision-making, yet they often remain largely passive or excluded. The effectiveness of land and natural resource use management is weakened by the lack of participation by women.

This essay forms part of a series that explores challenges and opportunities relating to a just transition in South Africa, with a specific focus on enhancing resilience in ways that improve lives and livelihoods. The series will be published in the lead-up to the Presidential Climate Commission’s multi-stakeholder just transition conference, on 5 and 6 May 2022.

The challenge

Interactions between social and ecological systems are at the centre of climate change adaptation. Community-based adaptation (CBA) aims to reduce the risks of climate change by involving communities themselves in the practices and planning of climate change adaptation.

Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) is the inclusion of biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of a strategy to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. Effective EbA and CBA requires the participation of many different stakeholders. A challenge in this respect is the marked difference between women and men in the use and governance of natural ecosystems, particularly in rural areas under traditional and customary land tenure systems in South Africa. 

The patriarchal systems that characterise communities under traditional leadership in provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Limpopo typically result in decision-making that is dominated by men. As primary users of natural resources, and those often most affected by environmental degradation, women have a key role to play in management and decision-making, yet they often remain largely passive or excluded.

The effectiveness of land and natural resource use management is weakened by the lack of participation by women. This has implications for CBA as an approach to devolve decision-making to the community level, while CBA is not sufficient to ensure that women can meaningfully engage in the participatory process and decisions, particularly relating to EbA.

This essay highlights the need to harmonise culture and tradition with gender equity goals in the governance of ecosystems and natural resources, and to develop a deeper understanding of the importance of empowering women to enhance adaptive capacity.

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Gender equity policy framework 

Gender equity is enshrined in several international declarations and conventions to which South Africa is a signatory, including the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. South Africa’s policy and legal framework on gender equity reflect these, the foremost example being the Constitution. More specifically, South Africa’s policy on gender and women’s rights is outlined in the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill and the National Policy Framework for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality. 

The Environment Sector Framework for Women Empowerment and Gender Equality and the Strategy toward Gender Mainstreaming in the Environment Sector aim to promote a gender-sensitive management approach in the environment sector. The National Environmental Management Act recognises the critical role of women in environmental management and development and advocates for the participation of women. However, few women are involved in decision-making regarding programmes to create sustainable and safe environments for economic development, particularly in rural areas. 

The Constitution recognises and provides specifically for the protection of culture. South Africans have a right to culture and to practice customary law. However, these rights are not unlimited. Traditional leadership institutions are subject to the other rights enshrined in the Constitution. For example, the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework recognises the important role of traditional leaders but specifically stipulates that gender equity within the institution of traditional leadership must be advanced.

Representation versus participation

While gender equity is enshrined in South Africa’s policy framework, implementation is lagging. Disparity between men and women is clearly still evident in land ownership and access to financial capital. Women make up 51% of the population, yet they own less than 15% of land. Two-thirds of investors in informal saving schemes are women, underscoring the lack of access to formal capital.

Gender inequity results from a combination of interrelated aspects and is closely linked with other modes of discrimination and sustainable development challenges. However, the prevalence of patriarchal systems at the household, community and institutional levels is a driver of gender inequity in rural South Africa. As Relebohile Moletsane and Sithabile Ntombela explain: “Boys and girls growing up, and men and women living in these rural settings, are socialised to fulfil different social roles and to live in accordance with gendered expectations, norms and values.

“It is within rural households that the cultural constructions of gender take place, entrenching the subordinate position of women and girls in these contexts… Although they fulfil critical socioeconomic roles, women remain poorer, invisible and voiceless, and are excluded from decision-making processes.”

These gendered expectations extend to the community and institutional levels. Traditional leadership institutions and customary laws are characterised by an entrenched patriarchal system where women typically have limited access to political power and are prohibited from “owning” land or excluded from decision-making on land use. 

Anecdotal observations suggest that women’s participation in traditional decision-making systems and structures remains constrained. The entrenched nature of patriarchal systems at the household and community level continues to influence how women themselves choose to participate. Even if formally included as “members” of a decision-making structure, women may choose not to participate actively as they feel it to be contrary to their culture or against the wishes of the male participants. 

The recognition of the right to culture, and inequity where traditional systems are largely patriarchal, creates the potential for tension between traditional practices and the realisation of the equitable empowerment of women. Such tensions pose a challenge to the development of effective climate change adaptation capacity.

Women and climate vulnerability 

Climate change is putting stress on practically all ecosystems and natural resources, and exacerbating environmental degradation, making natural resources increasingly scarce or more expensive to source. Rural households, particularly those living in poverty, depend on natural resources for their wellbeing. Natural resource loss, ecosystem degradation and climate change all have gender dimensions. 

Climate change impacts in southern Africa are recognised to be driving changes such as reduced water availability, loss of agricultural productivity and degradation and scarcity of natural resources harvested for domestic needs. These impacts are especially linked to the care work carried out by women in rural households. Studies have shown that women disproportionately suffer the impacts of climate change because of inequity associated with cultural norms, and the inequitable distribution of roles, resources and power.

Fanelesibonge Masinga et al demonstrate that women in rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal are ill-equipped to deal with the uncertainty brought about by climate change and do not know how to cope with drought. Faced with shrinking crop yields, many women are abandoning their subsistence agriculture and turning to harvesting natural resources to try to meet household food security needs. For example, they are chopping down trees and other natural resources to make products they can sell so they can buy food. While women can earn income from them, these activities perpetuate their vulnerability that is linked to degradation and scarcity of natural resources.

Women and ecosystem-based adaptation 

EbA has emerged as a key approach to addressing the impacts of climate change by reducing people’s vulnerability while also building the resilience of ecosystems. Given the different roles and responsibilities of men and women in natural resource management, gender considerations are important to the success of EbA. 

Women play a unique role in the stewardship of natural resources, and with their knowledge they can help to develop strategies to adapt to climate-related risks (United Nations Development Programme 2010). At the local level where EbA actions are typically implemented, however, research has found only limited evidence of EbA initiatives that systematically take a gender-responsive approach. Few EbA initiatives appear to go beyond gender sensitivity to address inequity and to increase meaningful participation of women in decision-making related to EbA. 

The issues that must be taken into consideration in a gender-responsive EbA approach include:

  • Recognition of differences between women and men in their adaptation needs and capacities;
  • Gendered roles and responsibilities and differences in access to, and control over, natural resources (gender-specific knowledge);
  • Gender-equitable participation and influence in adaptation decision-making processes; and
  • Gender-equitable access to finance and other benefits resulting from investments in adaptation.

Anecdotal evidence has highlighted another aspect requiring consideration: how changing perceptions of the value of ecosystems and natural resources influence decision-making powers. For example, in a community under traditional leadership in northeastern Limpopo, where governance of natural resources and land use is the domain of men, decisions on the use of a large wetland have been “left” to the women who are using it for subsistence crop cultivation. In this case, the wetland is seen as having no value other than for crop production. However, current systemic inequities could allow men to “take back” power if they became more aware of the wetland’s importance in EbA.

Women and community-based adaptation

Limited access to resources, restricted rights, reduced mobility and a limited voice in both community and household decision-making make women more vulnerable than men to the effects of climate change. This can have negative consequences, as women play a unique role in the stewardship of a range of natural resources in their communities. 

With their knowledge, they have an important contribution to make to developing adaptation interventions. It is therefore essential that CBA activities reflect women’s and men’s different needs, perspectives and knowledge. The inclusion and active participation of women in CBA guarantees that their valuable knowledge and skills are not excluded. 

The CBA approach of devolving decision-making to the community level is insufficient to ensure that women can meaningfully engage in the process. There can be different levels of participation in community decision-making, ranging from nominal and passive participation to active and substantive participation. Evidence suggests that women’s social capital and networks, and community-level recognition of women’s roles, are instrumental factors in encouraging empowered participation by women. 

One prerequisite for effective CBA is integrating gender into participatory analysis of local climate vulnerability; another is integrating gender into adaptive management to ensure that it informs design, monitoring, evaluation and learning. CBA approaches also need to be strengthened to ensure that women can voice their perspectives, share their knowledge and become empowered to effectively participate in decision-making, and that men recognise the knowledge and contribution of women. 

Anecdotal evidence has shown that equitable representation of women in forums or decision-making structures does not necessarily lead to effective participation. For example, a number of rural communities in Limpopo’s Capricorn District have received support from NGOs through a programme to develop EbA and build resilience to the impacts of climate change. 

A decision-making committee was established comprising nominated representatives, including at least 30% women. Despite continuous capacity development, however, the committee’s decision-making remains dominated by the men, and women are largely passive. Even when the women participate in discussions, decisions are still ultimately made by the men, and the women accept this. Representation only has limited effectiveness in empowering women, who still do not feel sanctioned to actively participate in decision-making processes.

Cultural and social norms that are imposed on women in patriarchal societies have made gender inequity in natural resource management, EbA and CBA broadly acceptable, both to decision-makers and often to women themselves. Participatory and devolved approaches, such as CBA, do not guarantee inclusive decision-making. 

The power dynamics between men and women remain, meaning that community participation is not sufficient to ensure that women meaningfully engage in participatory processes or, if they do participate, that their views and needs are incorporated into the decisions made. 

Even where women are represented in decision-making structures, they are often token or passive participants. In such cases, decision-making cannot be said to incorporate equitable participation by women and risks being driven by gendered interests. It is increasingly recognised that climate change differentially impacts the lives and livelihoods of men and women. This makes women’s knowledge and experiences essential for successful EbA and CBA approaches.

There is an urgent need for an integrated and multidimensional approach that supports the mainstreaming of a gender perspective into climate change adaptation and natural resource governance. Gender inequity can no longer be rationalised by cultural systems based on patriarchal values. New systems must reflect a transition to the constitutional value of human dignity, equity and freedom.

In South Africa, despite the widely recognised vulnerability of rural women to the impacts of climate change and increasing awareness of the need to mainstream gender into EbA and CBA, there is a dearth of research and applied interventions that address the climate change adaptation challenges for women, and of strategies to empower women to participate in EbA and CBA more effectively. 

Factors that are recognised as contributing to a shift in power relations between women and men, as observed in several rural settlements in South Africa, include the presence of institutions that acknowledge and recognise women’s concerns, changes made to customary law making it easier for women to access and own land, knowledge of the law, awareness-raising workshops and campaigns (for women and men), and access to education. 

Drawing from current knowledge and experience locally and globally, we offer several recommendations for consideration by policymakers and implementers to address the intersecting dimensions of gender inequity and facilitate a transition to equitable gender-responsive approaches to climate change adaptation in South Africa (Figure 1). 

Exploration, through implementation, of these approaches in rural South Africa is urgently needed to refine the most suitable strategies. 

Interventions to address the intersecting dimensions of gender inequity in order to enhance adaptation capacities.

Actively integrate gender-responsive approaches into EbA and CBA

EbA and CBA approaches need to evolve beyond token representation of women to being inclusive and equitable, and they must address gender balance by empowering women to meaningfully participate in decision-making at all levels. These interventions will require adequate time and resources.

Introduce elements of dualism 

An approach of dualism to community participation in climate change adaptation decision-making recognises that the current “reality” consists of two irreducible elements. Dualism offers options to harmonise culture and tradition with requirements for gender equity by, for example, facilitating separate focus groups for women and men for them to contribute gender-specific knowledge to planning and decision-making. 

This approach encourages women’s active participation by recognising that they may have entrenched cultural barriers to participation in forums involving men, and implements processes to accommodate this. These focus groups can be facilitated through existing women’s organisations, or support could be provided to create them.

In several rural settlements in KwaZulu-Natal, for example, the presence of gender-specific forums was identified as contributing to a shift in gender-based power relations. Dualism, however, requires a good understanding of the local gender dynamics and intersecting inequalities. A sound contextual understanding is needed to ensure that gender dynamics are appropriately considered and applied. 

Develop social capital: 

The risk of approaches based solely on dualism is that they perpetuate gender inequity relating to ongoing gender differentiation. However, strengthening the capacity of women to participate and to mobilise by establishing women’s groups can facilitate longer-term development of social capital, which can increase and sustain women’s participation.

Collective solidarity and support within women’s networks have been shown to encourage women to participate more actively. Women’s collective empowerment and unity allows them to increase their bargaining power within the community over time and facilitates their comfort in becoming involved in community settings. This creates options for mainstreaming women’s participation in the long term.

Develop capacity

Tensions exist between the need to recognise gender equity and the right to cultural practices and customary law values. Systematic awareness-building and capacity development is needed to enable women to understand their rights, roles and responsibilities, and to enhance their capacity to take up their rights and responsibilities as decision-makers. Capacity development enables the transformation towards gender equity by raising awareness and encouraging learning, knowledge-building and skills development. 

It helps women and men understand the role gender plays in their communities and to develop the capacity to advance gender equity in the management of their socioecological systems. Capacity development can also include supporting women to organise themselves and to form associations. This facilitates development of social capital and collective action, which can contribute to, for example, systems for equitable sharing of benefits from the improved management of ecosystems. Capacity-building programmes should include conflict resolution, assertiveness training and advocacy on gender issues.

Support structural reforms:

Systemic inequalities within communities, such as inequitable structures, hierarchies and power relationships that underlie gender inequity, need to be reformed to support effective participation by women in decision-making. To encourage women to participate in making decisions more broadly, structural reforms are required in parallel to specific interventions relating to planning and decision-making for climate change adaptation.

Long-term measures that institutionalise and embed women’s equity in their communities need to be supported and encouraged, including, for example, property rights for women, economic empowerment and formalised capacity building for women and men, as well as universal education. Investments in structural reforms will support sustainable changes in power relations between women and men and empower women’s participation and development broadly. These sustainable changes in power relations in turn enhance the long-term adaptive capacity of communities. DM/OBP

Read part one

This essay series has been produced by the Presidential Climate Commission Secretariat and New Climate Economy, with support from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The interpretations and findings set forth in the essays are the authors’ alone.


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