Category Archives: Gender and identity

Gender, adaptation, and development: frontiers or retreat?

I recently attended the WMO Conference on the Gender Dimensions of Weather and Climate Services in Geneva. The topic is one that brings together a lot of the work we do in HURDL, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this event. Specifically, I presented on how the development-as-usual approach to thinking about gender as essential instead of intersectional can make a tremendous difference in how we understand the presumed end users of climate services.

What does this mean? Basically, typical approaches to gender in adaptation tend to do three things:

1) They assume that gender differences are principal determinants of vulnerability to weather and climate shocks and stresses

2) They assume that men and women are unitary categories – that is, they do not generally look for the differences among men and among women, but focus on the differences between men and between women.

3) They assume that women are subservient or otherwise lacking authority and power relative to men, and this produces unique vulnerabilities for men and women.

Of course, anyone who has spent some time in an agrarian or pastoralist community in the Global South already knows that this is a gross oversimplification of gender roles and responsibilities in any setting. The categories “man” and “woman” contain a lot of variation, and that variation shapes the different roles and responsibilities individuals have in the community.

When I argue that gender is intersectional, what I am saying is that who an individual is, in terms of his or her role and responsibilities, is generally shaped in reference to a particular activity or setting. For example, a woman’s roles and responsibilities might be defined one way when talking about domestic labor, and perhaps another when talking about her agricultural activities. This means her identity is situational. Depending on her situation, it could be that her agricultural roles and responsibilities emerge at the intersection of gender and caste, while her domestic roles and responsibilities take shape at the intersection of gender and age.

Thus, talking about “women’s work” in this hypothetical community means different things in different situations. Really, we are talking about the difference between “high caste women’s work” and “low caste women’s work” in agriculture, and “senior women’s work” and “junior women’s work” in domestic contexts. These categories are not the same, for not all senior women will be high caste, and not all junior women will be low caste. Therefore, gender is only one part of the identity that defines particular roles and responsibilities within this community.

This all matters for adaptation and climate services because roles and responsibilities define who does what work, and therefore whose activities are vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability and change. Therefore, when thinking about how climate services might help particular populations address the impacts of climate variability and change, we must clearly define how that service will affect a particular activity’s vulnerability to a particular shock or stressor. We cannot say that a climate service will address a community’s vulnerability to climate variability and change – this is too broad to be meaningful. We need to talk about how a climate service might address the vulnerability of a community’s agricultural production to climate variability. This defines the activity in question clearly, and allows us to define the potential users of this activity appropriately – in the case of our hypothetical community, we would look to the roles and responsibilities that emerge at the intersection of gender and caste, as these identities are those that shape individual’s agricultural activities and therefore their vulnerabilities relevant to this particular stressor.

My closing point caused a bit of consternation (I can’t help it – it’s what I do). Basically, I asked the room if the point of paying attention to gender in climate services was to identify the particular needs of men and women, or to identify and address the needs of the most vulnerable. I argued that approaches to gender that treat the categories “man” and “women” as homogenous and essentially linked to particular vulnerabilities might achieve the former, but would do very little to achieve the latter. Mary Thompson and I have produced a study for USAID that illustrates this point empirically. But there were a number of people in the room that got a bit worked up by this point. They felt that I was arguing that gender no longer mattered, and that my presentation marked a retreat from years of work that they and others had put in to get gender to the table in discussions of adaptation and climate services. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are able to ask the sorts of complex questions that mark my ongoing work on gender, adaptation, and development (see, for example, my work on gendered crops, gendered livelihoods, and thereimagination of livelihoods decision-making) because a whole lot of pioneering researchers, many if not most of them women, pushed the very issue of gender onto the table. The work that I have been doing, and the ideas I outlined above, presented at the WMO, and are becoming part of the wider literature on gender and adaptation (see this overview piece) stand on the shoulders of these scholars, complementing and extending their work. I argue that HURDL’s work on gender and adaptation, and gender and climate services, is a logical extension of feminist work in development – feminist theory long ago stopped focusing merely on women, instead shifting to a wider focus on identity more generally. Gender usually matters a great deal when we talk about adaptation and development (though not always – see the Malawi case study in our USAID report). The question is how it matters, and how this particular aspect of identity produces opportunities and challenges we must address as we move forward in the Anthropocene.