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Climate Change, Migration and Security Climate change not only disrupts ecosystems; it also poses threats to the livelihoods and survival of people worldwide.

Gender impacts and social differentiations of climate-induced migration

Climate-induced migration is far from being gender-neutral: Given their specific experiences, needs and priorities, men and women perceive and act upon climate change and migration very differently. In the societal and scientific debate on climate-induced migration, gender dimensions represent a relatively novel topic (see for example Findley 1994; Hunter & David 2011; Tacoli 2011a; Tacoli 2011b; Chindarkar 2012; van der Land & Hummel 2012; Hunter 2013). Analysing and understanding gender impacts of climate-induced migration requires linking different discourses and debates, research sections, as well as life-world realities.

Gender as a basic category of social structure (Beer 1990; Becker-Schmidt 1993) means that gender can be regarded as a “structural indicator of social differences” (Becker-Schmidt 1993: 44). One example is gender-specific division of labour among men and women. At the same time, gender and the societal norm of the binary gender order is constantly generated and socially constructed within social interactions and discourses in terms of “doing gender”(Gildemeister 2004). Thus gender is of crucial importance for societal relations to nature and their regulation (Schultz et al. 2006; Braidotti et al. 1994; DAWN 1995; Haraway 1988). For example, gender constructions have influence on population dynamics and supply systems, on access to natural resources, as well as on people’s ways of life, family, kin and household characteristics (Hummel 2008; Lock & Kaufert 1998). This is highly relevant for climate-induced migration.

Gender studies and feminist scholarship examine the sex/gender relations, and gender as a category embracing further determinants of social inequalities such as class, ‘race’/colour, ethnicity, health and education status, sexual orientation, etc. The concept of intersectionality emphasises the entanglement of categories of social inequalities and their effects on power relations and discrimination. This issue is also taken up in gender and development studies, as well as research on gender, environment and sustainable development (Scheich & Wagels 2011; Schultz 2006; Hofmeister & Mölders 2006; Katz et al. 2015).

Gender, climate change and migration

Recent studies have highlighted the multilayered gender-specific impacts of climate change and environmental degradation: Given their unequal access to resources and information, empowerment and participation in decision-making, women and men are differently affected and exhibit different vulnerabilities to climate change. Due to historically and socially assigned gender roles, women are generally assigned to be more responsible for care and reproduction, while men are usually regarded through their responsibility for providing the family’s economic support by means of wage labour, employment and money income (Hunter & David 2011; Terry 2009; Schalatek 2011; WEDO 2007; Denton 2002).

Scholars concerned with gender-specific aspects of migration describe migration as a dynamic social and political process, embracing gender-differentiated motivations and patterns of migration, gender-biased migration policies and politics of identity construction (e.g., constructions of masculinity and feminity), as well as notions of places, locations and spaces, belonging and membership (Donato et al. 2006; Silvey 2004; Benhabib 2004). Most studies about the ‘feminisation of migration’ focus on international movements. Women represent more than half of the international migrants; the majority of migrant women are occupied in precarious, low-wage employment in the industry and service sector, or in irregular jobs.

There is an increasing number of women who migrate unaffiliated and ‘independently’ from husbands, relatives and families. This trend is true for international, cross-border migration as well as internal migration. Generally, women, in comparison to men, dispose of lower financial and material resources, but also less social capital such as social networks that facilitate migration. In certain contexts, social and cultural norms might also impede female mobility (Morokvasic 2009; Sieveking & Fauser 2009; see van der Land & Hummel 2012).

Gender and social inequality

The perspective on gender impacts can serve as a kind of ‘eye-opener’ for other social differences. Gender differences are one important aspect of social inequalities that shape migration decisions in the context of climate-induced as well as non-climate anthropogenic induced changes of the natural environment and ecosystems. Women and men are furthermore not just single individuals, but are also members of specific collectivities, e.g. national or ethnic collectivities (Yuval-Davis 1997). However, problem perceptions, motives for migration, decision-making and mobility patterns are determined by each specific historical, political, social and economic context and cannot be generalised in a simple manner. Moreover, migration itself has influence on gender relations and gender arrangements. Thus, taking a gender view, the history and impacts of climate-induced migration needs to be analysed for women, but also for men, and the relationships among the genders. This requires investigating empirically and comparatively, for example in case studies, whether, and in which way, climate-induced migration has impact on gender relations and arrangements, and vice-versa.

Gender, vulnerability and adaptive capacity

Recently, several studies on environmentally induced or climate-induced migration refer to the concepts of (social) vulnerability, adaptive capacity and resilience, which are strongly related to livelihoods, risk exposure and the adaptive capacity of individuals and groups (Adger 2000; Adger 2006; Folke 2006; Gallopín 2006). Taking this perspective, migration can be regarded either as a failure to adapt to environmental changes, as an attempt of individuals and/or households to mitigate their vulnerability to environmental stresses, or as an important component of livelihoods (McLeman & Smith 2006; McLemann & Hunter 2010; Tacoli 2011a; Scheffran et al. 2011; Warner & Afifi 2014; see for example the research projects ‘TransRe – Building resilience through translocality. Climate change, migration and social resilience of rural communities in Thailand’, ‘Where the rain falls’; and ‘micle – Migration, climate change and environment. Social-ecological conditions of population movements in Mali and Senegal’).

Different and multi-layered, interacting forms of social inequality contribute to vulnerability to climate change and/or environmental change, amongst them, for instance, include age, ethnicity, education, occupation, and sex/gender. For example, investigating interactions of climate change, land degradation and migration in selected regions in Mali and Senegal, the micle research project revealed that people’s formal education is one of several important social aspects influencing a migration decision under fragile social-ecological conditions. The lower the level of formal education, the more likely people are engaged in small-scale agriculture. People are particularly vulnerable to environmental changes such as increasing rainfall variability if they have only little financial means and social capital to compensate income losses as result of bad harvests. For them, migration can indeed be the only path for food security. However, given their lower education level compared to male education in the study regions, female survey participants barely mentioned education as a motive for their migration. Instead, in addition to economic reasons, “visits” and “family reasons” were the most important motives mentioned by women (van der Land & Hummel 2013).

Climate-induced migration, including gender-differentiated migration, depends on specific capabilities, livelihoods and adaptive capacity of individuals, households and groups (Schade 2013; Nussbaum & Sen 1993). Due to their different capabilities, women and men dispose of different coping capacities and adopt different strategies of adapting to climate change, including migration. Physical differences between men and women, but also between elderly and younger people play a decisive role in coping with (climate-induced) environmental changes, as well as cultural context (Hunter & David 2011). For example, well-nourished and bodily robust people have, beyond adequate financial means, other preconditions to cope, for example, with droughts and water scarcity, than undernourished or elderly persons or people with disabilities. These factors also influence people’s mobility. All together, migration constitutes a process, not a state. Gender roles and gender disparities do not only affect migration, but migration again shapes gender relations as well, including for example norms, perceptions and expectations related to mobility/migration, or safe and sustainable livelihoods.


A significant body of academic literature emphasises environmentally and climate change induced migration as multi-causal phenomenon (Adamo & Curran 2012; Piguet et al. 2011; Black et al. 2011). Since environmental, social, economic, cultural and political factors constitute complex interactions, it is impossible to isolate single factors from the bundle of manifold drivers. Thus, gender dimensions and social inequalities within climate-induced migration represent part of social-ecological transformations and their regulations. Concerning scopes of action and coping capacities, the character of the climate change phenomena and environmental changes is relevant, on the one hand: Are there long-term changes such as land degradation or sea-level rise, short-term such as flooding or hurricane, are they caused by human action or are they natural disasters? On the other hand, the type of migration must be considered: is it international or within the country, short-term or long-term, by choice or forced? Geographical location matters – e.g., if people live/stay in, or move to/from metropolitan or rural areas, and does it concern industrial, transformation or developing countries? Moreover, institutions are of utmost importance for scopes of action since they determine vulnerability and adaptive capacity. This concerns practical issues, e.g., is the community prepared for the climate change phenomena and endowed with the necessary infrastructure, administration, financial resources and governance, which kind of migration policies exist, etc. (for different case examples see Hunter & David 2011). Gender impacts and social differences of climate-induced movements illustrate the role of affected people (women and men, youth and elderly, as migrants or non-migrants) as subjects, agents and citizens. They usually do not act as single individuals, but live in social ties. Given their specific situation and positioning, they represent ‘stakeholders’ as well as ‘knowledge holders’. As such, they should be dealt with and included in respective research on climate-induced migration and policy measures.



Land degradation is the reduction or loss of the biological or economic productivity and complexity of rain—fed cropland, irrigated cropland, or range, pasture, forest or woodlands resulting from natural processes, land uses or other human activities and habitation patterns such as land contamination, soil erosion and the destruction of the vegetation cover.”

Source: Glossary of Environment Statistics, Studies in Methods, Series F, No. 67, United Nations, New York, 1997.

Diana Hummel
Dr. Diana Hummel
Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE), Frankfurt