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Understanding How Climate Change Affects Women in the Asia-Pacific Region: A Guide for Journalists

AI-generated image of Asia-Pacific women actively involved in climate change resilience activities; building seawalls, planting mangroves, and monitoring coral reefs against a backdrop of rising seas and stormy skies.

The consequences of climate change are in no way limited to altered weather patterns, rising seas and increased natural disasters. From disrupting food systems and forcing millions to migrate to impacting our physical and mental health, climate change is a far-reaching phenomenon, one that affects everyone to some degree.  

However, depending on the particular traits of a person—including their age, location, ethnicity and gender—their lived experience will be different. Women, for instance, bear a disproportionate burden of climate change because it aggravates already existing socio-economic inequalities that influence and shape their lives.

In a similar vein, women stand to benefit more from climate solutions when they are created with gender in mind. "Vulnerabilities and climate risks are often reduced through carefully designed and implemented laws, policies, participatory processes, and interventions that address context specific inequities such as those based on gender, ethnicity, disability, age, location and income,” says the 2023 Synthesis Report on Climate Change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

All of this means that journalists cannot take a gender-neutral approach if they want to tell the full story of climate change.  

In a recent webinar hosted by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN), we took a deep dive into how women experience climate change across the Asia-Pacific region. By several measures, these countries face heightened risks from the consequences of climate change, and therefore represent a compelling case study for adopting a gender lens when reporting the situation on the ground.  

This tipsheet, which aggregates material from that webinar as well as from a variety of other sources, offers an introduction to some of the ways that climate change affects women in these countries and how journalists can effectively cover them. Although certain aspects of this tipsheet are specific to the region, many others are applicable beyond borders.

A woman in a lab coat and gloves stands in front of machinery
The Dungarpur Renewable Energy Technologies Pvt. Limited (DURGA Energy) is a module manufacturing plant fully owned and operated by tribal women in Dungarpur District, Rajasthan in India / Credit: Kunal Gupta for Climate Visuals Countdown.


Overview of climate change and gender equality in Asia-Pacific

The United Nations Development Programme identifies Asia-Pacific as “the most disaster-prone region in the world.” It faces unique challenges due to its size, population density, exposure to extreme weather events and dependence on agriculture and natural resources. Disasters such as heatwaves, floods and droughts have far-reaching consequences on people’s lives.

In Asia-Pacific, more than 140 disasters impacted 64 million people, killed more than 7,500 people, and wrought $57 billion worth of economic damage in 2022. Climate predictions suggest the situation will worsen, with almost one billion people in the region impacted by rising sea levels by 2050, and major cities like Mumbai, Bangkok, Jakarta and Shanghai under threat. Large-scale displacement and migration is a growing concern, with the heaviest burdens falling on small island nations and vulnerable communities.

Rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns also pose significant challenges to agricultural production and food security. These changes can lead to reduced crop yields, increased pests and diseases, and disruptions in food supply chains.

Many countries are working to mitigate these threats by raising public awareness, planning disaster drills and installing early warning systems. Almost all Asia-Pacific countries have ratified the Paris Agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions, with countries committed to goals such as reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions or emissions intensity, expanding forests, and investing in renewable energy.

Gender roles in the Asia-Pacific are as diverse and varied as the region itself, with numerous beliefs, norms and traditions practiced. Increasingly, women's leadership in decision-making as scientists, lawyers, politicians, environmentalists, traditional leaders, healers, mothers and caregivers is being recognized, but progress is slow. 

Asia-Pacific fared well in the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Gender Gap Report, which measured gender parity across economic opportunities, education, health, and political leadership. The Philippines ranked highest in Asia and top 16 in the world with gender parity of 79.1%. As a region, East Asia and the Pacific reached 68.8% parity, earning the fifth-highest score out of eight global regions, while Southern Asia achieved 63.4% gender parity, the second-lowest score. 

In general, however, an established body of research shows that women bear a disproportionate burden from climate change, as it aggravates already-existing socioeconomic inequalities that influence their lives.

Below is a sampling of how this plays out in the region:

  • In the Philippines, extreme weather events such as typhoons and floods have a greater impact on women due to their traditional roles as caregivers and food providers. Women also have limited access to resources such as land, credit and technology, which makes it more difficult to adapt to the changing climate.  
  • In the Mekong Region, women are particularly vulnerable to climate change due to their dependence on natural resources for their livelihoods. Climate change has led to changes in rainfall patterns and water availability, which has affected agriculture and fisheries.  
  • In Vanuatu, an island nation threatened by rising sea levels and extreme weather, women bear the burden of climate impacts such as land loss and food insecurity.

The following sections will examine how climate change disproportionately impacts women’s lives but also how women are leading actions to address climate change.

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Read more: EJN’s report on the barriers to including women in environmental media, both as sources and as journalists, based on findings from across Asia.
 

Intersecting identities: Economic insecurity, women and climate 

When examining the effects of climate change, it’s important to consider a person’s intersecting identity traits.  

Depending on the roles of a person, their lived experience of climate change will be different. This includes gendered roles such as caregivers—normally taken on by wives, mothers, and daughters, especially in rural areas. Characteristics such as age, location, and ethnicity also affect how a person experiences climate change.  

People who live in rural areas may be more likely to experience the impacts of climate change in certain ways because of their geographic location and socioeconomic profile. These experiences will interact when the person in question is a rural woman.

Icon that reads 'top tip'People have multiple identity traits, so it is crucial to take them all into account when examining how climate change affects them. A rural woman, for instance, might also be young or unmarried, have a disability, belong to an Indigenous population or ethnic group, identify as transgender, gay, bisexual, etc. Society treats people differently based on their identity traits; consequently, the burden of climate impacts varies. Your reporting should be informed by an understanding of intersectionality. 

Much of the world’s agricultural labor is done by women. According to this 2011 study, women make up at least 43% of the global agricultural labor force and have a higher labor burden than men, including a higher proportion of unpaid household responsibilities.

From tea picking to pastoralism to planting in paddy fields, rural women across the Asia-Pacific region often work in agriculture. These women seldom own the land or tools they use to undertake such labor. In general, they often lack access to education and training opportunities, credit, and alternative income sources.

As the climate changes or when calamities like typhoons, severe flooding or drought strike, crop failure can happen. Moreover, drought can bring about water scarcity, forcing women to walk long distances to secure water for their fields or households.

Reduced harvests can lead to lower incomes, food insecurity and increased stress for women, who typically bear the burden of household budgeting and meal preparation.

For example, this Mekong Eye article describes the dangerous journey women make to collect water in Myanmar’s Central Dry Zone. They face scorching heat, conflict between the military and armed groups, and the threat of attacks on a daily basis.

Similarly, droughts have affected crops, livestock and water supplies in Chitrakoot, India, forcing men to migrate for work. This has left women responsible for looking after the family and their managing households. Drought and loss of income has also increased dangers such as sexual exploitation by landowners.

Furthermore, in Bolangir—a tribal district in India’s Odisha state—and Kendrapada district, droughts have caused food shortages and income loss that puts extreme stress on households, with women eating less than other family members and bearing more labor responsibilities.

Such precarious situations can also force girls to stop their education early and help their mothers at home. Poverty can also be a contributing factor for families to marry off their daughters when they are children or for women and girls to be trafficked.

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Allocate time for meaningful discussions with your interviewees and get to know them beyond the problems they may face. Build trust, respect and transparency in your interactions and maintain this trust, respect, and transparency throughout reporting and publishing your story. 


Furthermore, climate-driven crop failure can force farmers into a cycle of debt and deepening poverty. Droughts and climate-induced disasters force women to take microloans from informal sources and sell off assets to meet food demands. Further, continual borrowing leads to increased debt, increased costs, and eventual default.

This debt spiral has profound impacts on individuals and communities. When a rural woman owns the land she farms, the cycle of debt could result in her losing the land. When a rural woman is employed by a farmer, the cycle of debt could result in her being fired from her job. In both scenarios, she might find herself forced to migrate in search of work, which makes her increasingly vulnerable to exploitation (see next section).  

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 An extreme weather event can set off a years-long chain reaction of consequences for rural women, so it is important to keep on the story and make time for follow-up reports after the immediate aftermath of the disaster.  

Women, climate migration and human trafficking

Climate change has led to an increase in distress migration, whether driven by natural disasters or slow-onset events like droughts and sea level rise. A decline in livelihood opportunities can lead to debt cycles and force people into exploitative labor practices.  

The number of people displaced within their countries is increasing worldwide, says the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Of the 60.9 million people internally displaced in 2022, more than 23.8 million were in South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific. Most were displaced due to natural disasters, including more than 8.1 million people in Pakistan, 3.6 million in China and 2.5 million in India.

However, migration and displacement does not fall evenly across gender lines. The monitor explains that “as women across the world are, on average, economically, legally, politically and socially less empowered than men, internally displaced women are twice disadvantaged.”

The rise in migration has been linked to an increase in women’s vulnerability to modern slavery and human trafficking. In the aftermath of disasters such as cyclones, floods and heatwaves, traffickers prey on those who are vulnerable.  

For example, women survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan—which struck the Philippines in 2013, displacing millions of people and killing thousands—or Cyclone Sidr, which struck Bangladesh in 2007 and also killed thousands, were more at risk of being trafficked or forced into hard labor or sex work.

Icon that reads 'top tip'Practice trauma-aware journalism. Balance the need for coverage and highlighting underreported voices with careful delivery to avoid retraumatizing people who have experienced trauma. It is important to pick images carefully so as to not expose, revictimize or portray story subjects in stereotypical or harmful ways. Ensure that you have informed consent for photos and interviews. Also think about how covering traumatic stories may impact your own well-being.

Effects of climate change on women’s health and well-being

The increased frequency and intensity of weather events, fueled by the changing climate, has significant impacts on physical and mental health, women’s included.  

A recent study by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which examined heat-related productivity losses through a gender lens, concluded that estimates of women’s heat-related losses increase by 260% when unpaid labor is taken into account, compared to only 76% increase for men. The study identified extreme heat as placing a disproportionate burden on women’s physical health and economic security.

The psychological effect of climate change, whether acute trauma or sustained anxiety, is also often overlooked, and affects women. This includes the mental stress induced by witnessing the destruction of one's home and community and anxiety about the future in the face of recurring disasters. The forced displacement and distress migration resulting from these climate events also contribute to mental stress.

Firefighters use a hose against a wildfire in a wooded area
Army officers fight peat fires outside of Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan in Indonesia / Credit: Aulia Erlangga for CIFOR.


In Bangladesh, for example, a 2020 study found that cyclones had negative impacts on people’s mental health, linking them to stress and sleep disorders, anxiety, PTSD, depression and thoughts of suicide. It identified elders, women and children as most affected. A 2023 study in Bangladesh further suggested connections between climate change and mental health, with women more likely than men to experience depression due to climate stressors. It also found that people with educational opportunities were less likely to have depression, suggesting that education is important for combating such issues. 

To address these climate-linked issues, robust mental health services and local solutions are needed. However, many countries lack appropriate services to address a mental health crisis. In low- and middle-income countries in the Asia-Pacific, for example, there is less than one psychiatrist per 100,000 people. This means people may not have access to the mental health services they need, women included.

Icon that reads 'top tip'When reporting, consider the impacts of climate change on women’s health. What is the status of women’s access to healthcare (physical and psychological) in the region? Is it less comparatively to men’s? How does climate change affect this? How does migration affect women’s access to healthcare? How does water insecurity or scarcity affect women’s reproductive health or access to menstrual products? And are policymakers addressing health risks when implementing climate solutions?

Icon that reads 'read more' with women's symbol and globeDuring EJN’s project activities in the Bay of Bengal, we found that climate impacts on women’s health are gravely under-reported. Stories by EJN grantees began to highlight how women, in particular, bear the brunt of the climate crisis, but overall, more attention is needed on the toll climate change extracts on women’s reproductive and mental health.  

Grassroots solutions and policy measures

Women throughout the Asia-Pacific region have come up with innovative approaches to coping with climate change. Given that solutions designed with gender in mind are generally more effective, it is important for journalists to highlight these actions. By showcasing these projects, others can learn about them and adopt them for themselves in other contexts, and policymakers can use their power to support and scale such solutions.

Icon that reads 'top tip'Tip for journalists: Take care to avoid communicating a narrative that paints women as helpless victims of climate change. Women are indeed affected by climate change, but they are also agents of positive change.

For example, Sigay Nu Mga Babay, an organization based in Maguindanao, Philippines, and led by internally displaced women, has challenged traditional gender norms and implemented creative strategies to address climate change and conflict in the area. For example, they implemented a community garden to address community food needs during flooding in 2021.

On a government level, policies and programs that keep gender in mind, as well as anticipate future risks, are important for creating a social safety net for communities. One approach to this is “anticipatory action,” or creating programs and initiatives that anticipate future disasters and protect people from these risks. Policies and programs can also be “gender-mainstreaming,” meaning they are created with gender in mind.

Woman stands on tall ladder to work on a solar panel
A solar engineer works on maintaining a solar street light in her village in Tinginaput, India / Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith for Panos Pictures and UK Department for International Development.


In the Philippines, for example, significant policies and initiatives have been passed to address both climate change and women’s empowerment. This includes the 2009 Magna Carta of Women (or Republic Act 9710) which says women have a “right to protection and security in times of disasters, calamities, and other crisis situations.” It also passed the Climate Change Act of 2009 (Republic Act No. 9729) which specifies a “gender-sensitive” approach to the climate crisis and acknowledges that women are disproportionately affected.

Icon that reads 'top tip'Representing women’s voices in your reporting involves more than highlighting how women and other marginalized communities bear the brunt of climate impacts. What insights can women in business, technology, finance, or leadership positions bring to your climate stories? Journalists should seek to draw attention to both threats and adaptive solutions.

An icon with a question markQuestions to consider: Do policymakers in your region adopt participatory processes to engage the communities they serve? To what extent have they implemented gender-responsive policies related to climate resilience, mitigation or disaster preparedness? Are there recent successes you can highlight, or challenges that your reporting can point to?

Conclusion

Journalists, regardless of their own gender identity, have an important role to play in putting the spotlight on how women experience climate change. This tipsheet serves as a brief introduction to the gendered effects of climate change in the Asia-Pacific region; these and many others urgently need greater media attention. Only with accurate, localized and gender-sensitive information can people successfully adapt to their changing environments, engage more fully in decision-making processes, hold the powerful to account and demand more inclusive and effective policies.  

Story themes and ideas

Here are a few examples of topics to explore when reporting on how women are affected by climate change:  

  • Gendered effects of climate change: How does climate change affect women in your country? How does climate change in your country affect women who have different identity traits (e.g. live in a rural area, belong to a sexual minority)?
  • Government policies and plans: What sorts of policies and plans has your government adopted to mitigate and adapt to climate change? What about protocols for disaster management and risk reduction? To what extent are women involved in policymaking? How well is your government implementing these policies and plans?
  • Solutions reporting: What are some success stories you could highlight in your reporting from similar areas of the world when it comes to dealing with or preventing the gendered consequences of climate change? Could such a solution be scaled, replicated and/or implemented in your area?
  • Climate-aware women’s empowerment: What are some approaches to women’s empowerment that take climate change in mind? What works and what doesn’t? Could such projects or initiatives be implemented in your area?  
  • Migration safety nets: What social safety nets are available for migrants in your country? Are there any resources available in a targeted way for women migrants?    

Resources


Banner image: A Future Crafted by Resilience: This AI-generated image by ChatGPT depicts women in the Asia-Pacific forging sustainable solutions to combat climate change, embodying hope as they fortify their communities against the relentless rise of the sea. Credit: ChatGPT.