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Women, Climate Change and Human Rights in Africa

Michael Addaney, Ph.D.

Lecturer, University of Energy and Natural Resources, Sunyani, Ghana.


Climate change has indisputable long-term consequences on the environment, which, in turn, seriously undermine the enjoyment of human rights. The African continent is projected to be one of the hardest hit by the negative effects of climate change. The consequences of climate change are not only disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and poorest populations, there are also disparities along gender lines. The connections between climate change, gender equality, and women’s rights are complicated and multidimensional. In contrast, most existing studies on gender and climate change action offer a narrow conception of what gender equality and women’s rights mean in the context of climate change action.

By considering the thorny linkages between climate change, gender equality, and women’s rights in Africa, this article relies on the lived realities of women and geographical vulnerabilities of the African Continent to highlight that the rights of women are disproportionately undermined by the adverse impacts of climate change. The article provides options for policy and social interventions by different stakeholders to ensure that women are not further marginalized by the negative impacts of and responses to the global climate crisis.

Women and the climate crisis in Africa

Climate change undermines the enjoyment of human rights, such as the rights to life and security of the person; health; adequate food and water; and shelter and property. The adverse effects of climate change, however, are not equally distributed. Women, children, and minorities often bear the brunt of the impact of climate change. Joane Nagel observes that gender differences influence how men and women are impacted by climate change. These differences lead to vulnerabilities in access to resources related to recovery from climate-induced disasters, approaches to climate risks, and involvement in the political processes that shape adaptation and mitigation activities.

Women across the world are more prone to poverty in comparison to men as a consequence of uneven access to economic resources, finances, and decision-making capabilities. For example, the UNDP has underscored that women in developing countries experience unequal access to resources and decision-making processes, with constrained agility in rural areas. Moreover, women experience the adverse effects of climate change differently as the prevailing circumstance weakens their adaptive capacity and resilience.

On the African continent, extreme climatic events such as a heat waves, floods, and drought have distinctive gendered effects. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) indicated that by 2020 about 75 to 250 million people in Africa are estimated to be exposed to increased water stress; a reduction of yields from rain-fed agriculture by up to 50 percent in some regions; limitations to agricultural production including access to food; enhanced summer monsoon precipitation in West Africa; increased short rain in East Africa due to the warming of the Indian Ocean; and increased rainfall extremes of landfall cyclones on the east coast (including Madagascar).

Despite being equally exposed to some of these extreme climate events, women are more vulnerable to these impacts due to the factors identified above. The stress associated with decreased access to economic and social resources combined with prevailing discriminatory practices such as exclusion from decision-making processes regarding resources and the environment are considered to be the leading factors for the increased exposure of women to the impacts of climate change.

Challenges of legally protecting women’s human rights against extreme climatic events in Africa

There is compelling consensus on the practical link between climate change, gender, and human rights. Unfortunately, gender issues have not been broadly considered in the international climate change negotiation process, especially in the formulation of climate change law and policy. For instance, in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, the words “gender” and “women” are not mentioned at all, resulting in little consideration of gender issues in international climate action discourse.

Conversely, most prevailing characteristics that make people susceptible to climate change – such as a heavy dependence on natural resource-based livelihood activities with limited alternative livelihoods such as non-farm businesses or vocal skills – reflect the experience of women living in societies of extreme poverty. Women are generally known to play a significant role in supporting their households in realizing food and nutrition security, generating income, and improving community livelihoods and general well-being.

The AU, however, has sufficient human rights-responsive provisions that are relevant in remedying the gender gaps in international and national climate change law and policy. For instance, Article 13 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provides for the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognized and guaranteed in the charter without distinction based on gender, race, ethnic group, color, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth, or other status. The African Charter further contains provisions relating to the rights and freedoms of women, including the right to information and the right to a generally satisfactory environment.

The 2003 Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) is the lex specialis when it comes to promoting and protecting the rights of women in Africa. The Maputo Protocol, in Article 2(1), obliges all state parties to combat all forms of discrimination against women through the adoption of appropriate legislative, institutional, and other measures. The Protocol consequently tasks state parties to “integrate a gender perspective in their policy decisions, legislation, development plans, programmes and activities and in all other spheres of life.” It further obligates state parties to eradicate discrimination against women in their respective jurisdictions.

In the area of participation and inclusion, Article 18(2a) of the Maputo Protocol obliges state parties to take all appropriate measures to “ensure greater participation of women in the planning, management and preservation of the environment and the sustainable use of natural resources at all levels.” This applies directly to finding new sources of energy for cooking without firewood, for example. When implemented together with the right to participation in environmental decision-making, this provision can help close the gender equality gap and safeguard the rights of women in the context of climate action.

Additionally, Article 19 of the Maputo Protocol provides that women have the right to sustainable development. State parties are consequently obliged to consider the needs of women in development planning activities; to enhance women’s access to and control over productive resources and to safeguard their right to property; and also to strengthen women’s access to credit, training, skills development and extension services in both rural and urban areas. This implies that during the designing and implementation of specific climate change policies, state parties are to ensure that the impact of such policies on women is duly considered and mitigated. Despite the progress made by AU law and policy in the area of gender equality, women’s rights, and climate change in Africa, bottlenecks such as deep-rooted sociocultural and religious beliefs still hinder women’s access to economic and energy resources.

Policy and social interventions

This submission establishes that women’s historic disadvantages including their limited access to resources, restricted rights, and repressed voice in shaping decisions make them highly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. It argues for an improved understanding of women’s and men’s knowledge, roles and abilities which will provide a solid basis for the formulation and development of climate change legislation, policy and programmes. Furthermore, women at all levels should be actively involved in integrating their priorities, skills, and knowledge in climate action at the continental and local levels. Gender-sensitive structures, guidelines, projects, and tools need to be developed at various levels for all climate change financing mechanisms. Finally, to help address the historical, political, and socioeconomic constraints faced by many women in environmental matters in Africa, gender-based criteria should be developed for climate funding allocation.


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