As the 21st century unfolds, climate change will look different for everyone. We're pretty familiar at this point with photos of polar bears riding around on miniscule rafts of ice, and though we can imagine what the social outcomes of climate change will be for humans, these seem far away — part of some sort of environmental disaster film or dystopian novel. But in some parts of the world, increased climate variability is changing people's lives right now — and it's affecting everyone differently, even men and women living in the same communities.
A study published in the journal Ambio in December 2016 explores the ways in which men and women in the small West African country of Benin are coping with the extreme weather events that are becoming increasingly common in that part of the world. Forty percent of Benin's GDP comes from agriculture, and 80 percent of Beninois earn their living from farming or fishing. Flooding, drought, destructive winds, unpredictable rain patterns and dwindling natural resources — particularly in the northern part of the country — have required the Beninois to either emigrate to other places, or to stay put and adapt their farming practices.
Women in Benin are particularly vulnerable in this scenario because very few of them have a formal education about 70 percent of them live in rural areas. Women are also responsible for between 60 and 80 percent of agricultural work, but they have very little decision-making power in the home or community. The research team from Germany and Nigeria interviewed 197 Beninois men and 63 women to figure out how they were adapting to the extreme weather patterns, and found the women were the ones grappling with the problem of keeping families and communities afloat.
According to the study, the men and women interviewed were equally aware of the ways in which the climate in their area was changing, but they chose to respond to the situations differently. Although both men and women often adopted improved crop varieties when they were made available, women tended to plant more subsistence crops like corn and beans in order to lower household expenses, while men planted crops like cotton for which they could receive government subsidies and a paycheck. Women tended to use livestock as capital to expand their farms, while men often sold the animals in order to move away from the area. Men who had bad luck farming also attempted to move into non-agricultural jobs, but it was the women who stuck it out, even taking on more responsibility for working the family land.
Grace Villamor, lead author and a researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany, suggests that the Benin government could help farmers by focusing on reaching more women with information about things like new drought-resistant crops and farming technologies, as well as including them in decision making that's usually made only with men in the community.