October 2016, No. 3 Vol. LIII, Human Habits, Human Habitats

Women and girls are not intrinsically vulnerable but their social, economic and political conditions make them susceptible to risks and vulnerabilities. In the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), to be held in Quito, Ecuador, 17–20 October 2016, the imminent threat of climate change must be seriously considered, as it increases the risks and vulnerabilities afflicting women and girls, including rural women and their communities. In case studies of organized networks of rural grassroots women1 detailed below, we see how the effects of climate change-induced disasters were not only used to establish sustainable practices, but also as opportunities to reverse the social, economic and political conditions of women and communities. The cases illustrate that grassroots women’s holistic, integrated and inclusive responses are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Recognition and support for climate change adaptation initiatives and bottom-up development interventions led by rural grassroots women are essential foundations for sustainable development.

Unsustainable development models characterized by underregulated, market-led economic growth are key causes of the destructive social, economic and environmental effects of climate change. Amid the devastation and displacement, women and girls often lose their sources of livelihood, and yet are still expected to carry out daily chores and care for their immediate and extended families.

It is essential to recognize that women’s vulnerabilities are embedded in social, economic and political processes, and that the current gaps in development reinforce them. Sustainable development processes, when properly implemented, however, can empower grassroots women to transform the living conditions of their families and communities, and enable them to reverse these vulnerabilities.2

Linking gender equality with sustainable development is both moral and ethical. To achieve a just and sustainable future, the rights, values, and capabilities of half of the world’s population cannot be denied.3 Women’s knowledge, representation and collective action is a powerful resource that can enhance ecosystem conservation, promote the sustainable use of natural resources, and be used to develop more sustainable food, energy, water and health systems.

The Effects of Climate Change on Women and Communities4

Understanding how climate change further marginalizes and increases vulnerabilities for women and girls can inform policies and resource allocation, which will help in redressing the problems they face. The challenge is to reverse and eliminate the conditions that increase risks and vulnerabilities, while enabling women and girls to act as the drivers of such a process. This applies equally to climate change adaptation and redressing conditions of gender inequality.

The ways in which women and girls are particularly affected by climate change are described in the sections below.

Food Security

Food security is a broad topic that covers the availability, accessibility, utilization and stability of food systems. Women farmers currently account for 45 to 80 per cent of all food production in developing countries, depending on the region. As a result of climate change, traditional food sources have become more unpredictable and scarce, leading to women’s loss of income and access to food. Women are also often excluded from decision–making processes regarding access to and the use of land and resources critical to their livelihoods.

Water Resources

The increased frequency of floods and droughts has led to disruptions in freshwater supply, negatively affecting women and girls in particular, since they are often tasked with securing and managing water for daily domestic use. In developing countries, fetching water from distant sources is time-consuming, and the quantity retrieved is rarely enough to meet the needs of the household. Furthermore, since the water is not filtered, it can be contaminated and have adverse effects on the health and sanitation of women, girls and their families. 


The effects of climate change on health include increased mortality and morbidity due to heat waves, floods, storms, fires and drought. The risk to women’s health in particular increases as a result of water scarcity and contamination.

Changes in Human Settlements and Migration Patterns Due to Environmental Degradation

Environmental degradation leads to the displacement of human settlements and increases in migratory flows, affecting the safety and security of women and girls. Environmental deterioration is likely to increase the movement of populations within and outside affected areas and lead to increased risks of gender violence, sexual harassment and various forms of marginalization for the female population.

Disaster Risk Reduction, Climate Change Adaptation and Poverty Reduction

Policies on disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and poverty reduction5 are all advancing. Practices and innovations developed by rural grassroots women are helping build resilience to disaster and climate change, both of which are inextricably linked to advancing development priorities. The section below explores the links between disasters, development, poverty and gender-based inequality. This analysis is supported by case studies6 in which rural grassroots women’s organizations working in disaster-struck communities have demonstrated their leadership by securing resources to address urgent development concerns.

Resilient Agriculture in Nicaragua: Unión de Cooperativas de Mujeres Productoras “Las Brumas”

The Unión de Cooperativas de Mujeres Productoras “Las Brumas” (Union of Women Producers Cooperatives Las Brumas) in Nicaragua began as a women’s farming initiative after the Nicaraguan civil war and included women from both sides of the conflict. The Union has since evolved into a reconciliation and rehabilitation process, becoming a network of 22 cooperatives with over 1,320 women working towards food security, livelihoods, land tenure and more transparent service delivery from local and national governmental programmes.

In June 2009, a group of grassroots women led by the Las Brumas Cooperative President, Haydee Rodriguez, collaborated with Helen Toruño, the president of one of the Union’s member groups and someone with formal training in agricultural engineering. With resources from the Community Resilience Fund,7 grassroots women purchased seeds and tools, and worked to maximize available plots through the use of organic fertilizer, practising soil and water conservation methods. The number of diversified plots increased from 50 in 2009 to 200 in 2014, and the farmer’s yearly net income per capita rose from C$2,200 to C$13,70 (Nicaraguan Córdobas). Aside from learning about productive sustainable agriculture, the women also gained recognition from the local and national authorities.

Improving Infrastructure in Uganda: Slum Women’s Initiative for Development

The Slum Women’s Initiative for Development (SWID),8 a grassroots women-led organization in Uganda, works to build resilience and food security, improve access to health infrastructure, and obtain land tenure for marginalized groups. In the SWID food security initiative, women negotiate with landowners and local governments so that they can manage ‘demonstration gardens’ and instruct other women in the community on how to produce higher yields of fruits and vegetables.

To reduce the sanitary impacts of urban flooding in Jinja municipality, women also organized meetings to increase awareness on hygienic practices, such as household solid waste management and ending the use of polythene bags, which can clog drains.

SWID also successfully negotiated with local authorities in Jinja, convincing them to commit to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) Resilient Cities Campaign, leading to infrastructure improvements in the area’s informal settlements. Furthermore, SWID partnerships with local authorities to secure land titles are essential to reducing women’s vulnerability to food and livelihood insecurity.

Disaster in India: Swayam Shikshan Prayog

The learning and development organization Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) has more than a decade of experience in facilitating sustainable and community-driven recovery-to-development processes. In the aftermath of large-scale earthquakes in Maharashtra (1993) and Gujarat (2001), India, SSP mobilized grassroots women’s groups to participate in post-disaster reconstruction and other local governance projects.

With SSP, the grassroots networks have managed to spearhead transfer and recovery practices, focusing on the restoration of livelihoods, the education of homeowners on safe construction practices, the training of masons, and the establishment of sustainable community enterprises. Grassroots women have also developed their capacity as community information managers and monitors in government reconstruction programmes.

In the two worst-affected districts of Tamil Nadu, it has been estimated that more than 300,000 people were impacted by the earthquake. Recovery and reconstruction processes focused on home rebuilding and the restoration of livelihoods in the fishing and agricultural sectors, while women’s long-term health and sanitation concerns remained unaddressed. As a result, women organized to address the ‘health gap’ in their communities, and they continue to sustain and expand their work.

Rural Grassroots Women as Drivers of Sustainable Development

The above-mentioned cases illustrate how organized rural grassroots women can approach issues of post-disaster recovery and resilience-building and work towards solutions. These solutions promote the Sustainable Development Goals and the aims of sustainable human settlements: security, environmental conservation, sustainable agriculture, food security, women’s participation and accountability. In urban communities, organized networks of urban grassroots women and non-governmental organizations approach similar issues with holistic, inclusive and participative, bottom-up development processes.

A key challenge remains: shifting to development models that promote environmental sustainability and resilience, and eliminate the exploitation of women and girls. It is urgent that Governments incorporate gender perspectives into their national policies and action plans. Mainstreaming gender concerns into policies and plans is only feasible when sex-disaggregated data is collected systematically. The participation and support of women at various levels of the decision-making process in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, as well as providing them access to finance, credit, technology and social protection, are crucial if women and girls are to enjoy their right to a humane and sustainable way of life.


1 'Grassroots' women is a term referred to in the publication Leading Resilient Development: Grassroots Women’s Priorities, Practices and Innovations”, Maureen Fordham and others (New York, Groots International, Northumbria University School of the Built and Natural Environment and the United Nations Development Programme, 2011). Available from http://www.undp.org/content/dam/aplaws/publication/en/publications/womens-empowerment/leading-resilient-development---grassroots-women-priorities-practices-and-innovations/f2_GROOTS_Web.pdf. It refers to low-income women, rural or urban, who are excluded from decision-making processes in their communities, despite rich experiences in the struggle for daily survival. For this article, the term “rural grassroots women” is used to refer to women residing in agricultural areas where they are farmers, producers, pastoralists, etc. Combining the terms rural and grassroots reflects the fact that women are rooted in everyday duties and responsibilities, while systematically excluded from decision-making. 

2 Winnie Byanyima and Sandy Schilen, “Foreword”, in Leading Resilient Development, Fordham and others, p. i.

3 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, “Preface”, in World Survey on the Role of Women in Development 2014: Gender Equality and Sustainable Development, UN-Women (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.14.IV.6), p. 7.

4 This section draws from UN Women Watch, “Women, Gender Equality and Climate Change”, Fact Sheet (2009). Available from http://www.un.org/womenwatch/feature/climate_change.

5 Maureen Fordham and others, Leading Resilient Development.

6  Ibid.

7 For more information about the Global Community Resilience Fund, Huairou Commission, see The Huairou Commission, The Global Community Resilience Fund: Operational Framework and Guidelines (New York, 2015). Available from https://huairou.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/CRF-Ops-Guidelines-August....

8 For more information, see World Bank and Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery, Community-Led Partnerships for Resilience (Washington, D.C., World Bank, 2015). Available from https://www.gfdrr.org/sites/default/files/publication/Community_led_partnership_JUNE24.pdf.