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Climate change and time poverty trap women in a vicious cycle

Mou Rani Sarker and Ranjitha Puskur

“Since my husband left home, I am responsible for everything, such as daily shopping and cooking, household chores, my children’s education - simply everything,” said Joynab from the Barishal District of Bangladesh. 

Her husband migrated to Chittagong due to riverbank erosion which made their farming unviable. The geographical location, land characteristics, river diversity, and monsoon climate make Bangladesh highly vulnerable to natural catastrophes. Each year, the country faces a slew of natural hazards, including seasonal floods, flash flood, cyclones, heat waves, riverbank erosion, drought, storm surges, and saline intrusion.

The latest IPCC report projected that the country is likely to face extreme heat and humidity, continued rise of sea-level resulting in loss of homes of four million people and threatening effect on industry and agriculture because of climate change. About 1.0 to 2.0 million people of the south of Bangladesh are at risk of displacement by mid-century and a decline in rice production by 12 per cent to 17 per cent.

Women face high demands on their time

Climate change disproportionately affects women, placing a heavy burden on their time and labor, owing to their roles on the farm and in the household. About 48% of women in Bangladesh live in disaster-prone areas. Climate shocks result in income and asset losses for the women and their households, affecting their adaptive capacity negatively.

Women living in these areas face significant vulnerabilities; their coping mechanisms are affected by gender dynamics and power structures both inside and outside the household.  They have limited decision-making power and financial resources. They spend time and labour preparing for and adapting to climate shocks.

Time poverty of women is a harsh reality. Social norms impose women with multiple responsibilities and they have to make trade-offs while choosing paid and unpaid work, as well as their leisure time. Women shoulder unpaid regular domestic tasks including food preparation, collecting fuel and water, laundry, and caring for children and elders which are time-consuming. With increasing male outmigration, women also have to take care of the farms.  Increased work burden and longer working hours with less time for leisure leave women time poorer.

In the Haor Region (a wetland ecosystem in northeastern Bangladesh), a woman farmer who faces flash floods and submergence several months each year during the monsoon season, devotes 335.45 hours per month to unpaid work. In comparison, the men devote only 81.09 hours.  More than half (54%) of the women in this region are time-poor as compared to only 7% of men (Sarker, 2020). 

Climate change and time poverty

Environmental stress, shocks and disturbances exacerbates women's time poverty through a range of direct and indirect mechanisms. Rural women rely heavily on local natural resources such as water, food, and fuel for cooking and heating. The higher their dependence on natural resources, the greater their time poverty. 

Deforestation and land degradation accelerated by climate change reduce the availability of energy sources and compel women and girls to spend more time collecting fuel from forests, fields, and bushes. Women in coastal areas walk long distances, sometimes up to three kilometers every day, to find safe drinking water.

Women in the polder areas of Khulna, Bangladesh. Sabitri, a 67-year-old widow, runs a small business in the local bazaar to support her family (Left). Rahela chops firewood for cooking (right). Photo: Mou Rani Sarker


Women lead in time of disasters

Women are disproportionately affected by workload distribution within the family during and after disasters. Women take responsibility for securing all personal belongings and caring for their home and homestead before seeking shelter.

“All responsibilities fall on me to shift the house as the riverbank erodes. From planning to moving, everything has to be led by me,” a woman who lives at Jumuna river bank in Manikganj District said. “My husband and children depend on me for this entirely. I have a hectic life in time of disasters. Despite having physical difficulties, I have to look after my family as well.”

Women assist their spouses with house relocation and reconstruction after a calamity. They are the primary caregivers for family members, including children, the injured, the sick, and the elderly. This significantly increases their emotional and material workload. Women's vulnerabilities are exacerbated when they are left behind by men, especially when the husband dies because they must now support their families on their own. Daily chores for women multiply as they struggle to maintain resources, feed their family, and care for the elderly. 

Climate change-induced male outmigration, whether seasonal or permanent, increases the time poverty of women left behind. Women who live in poverty, evidence reveals, take on additional labor responsibilities in addition to their existing unpaid duties. These responsibilities include, but are not limited to, manual labor on the family farm, hiring and monitoring laborers, negotiating irrigation pump rental, and cleaning irrigation canals.

Many of these women are compelled to work as cheap laborers for wealthy farmers while preparing their own land for the following year's harvest. These time-strapped women often do not have enough time to allocate for important tasks and are forced to make harsh trade-offs such as spending less time taking care of children or themselves.

The significant damage caused by floods and cyclones, such as the loss of crops, livestock, and other valuable assets of poor families, force women to break social norms and work outside their homes and farms to survive. Women continue to bear the "reproductive tax" in such circumstances, frequently juggling multiple tasks and having little or no leisure time. 

“I was not used to working in the fields, but cyclone Aila broke the social taboo,” explained Minoti Rani from Satkhira District. “I and many other women in our village started working to earn money for our family and to survive after Aila. We have been working outside since then to support our family.”

However, women have to continue to be responsible for maintaining the home and taking care of children even when they start engaging in wage work and so women continue to bear a double burden. After natural disasters, women who are unable to adapt locally may choose to migrate to large cities as a livelihood strategy.  Women migrants make up a large proportion of the informal urban labor market and end up living in slums under substandard circumstances. 

Climate change exacerbates women’s time poverty and enhances their vulnerability. There is limited systematic analysis of this dynamic and thus necessitates greater attention. While women develop their own adaptation strategies within the bounds of their more complex responsibilities, drawing on their extensive knowledge, experience, and expertise we could support women through the following:

  • Design time- and labor-saving technologies and make them accessible to women.
  • New approaches and collaborations are necessary to create and implement gender-responsive and climate and economic policies that address women's barriers and strengthen their adaptation capability by including them in policy and program designs. These should span creating decent and remunerative farm and non-farm employment opportunities, enhancing access to the formal labor market. Enhancing their access to innovative financial products and services, resources, credit, and savings are critical means of gaining access to productive assets, resources and service to enhance their adaptive capacity.
  • Access to affordable energy sources and public transportation will save time and energy. 
  • Early warning of climate shocks along with relevant information can help women prepare for disasters. 
  • A gender transformative agenda on labor recognizing unpaid work, reducing drudgery and time pressure, and distributing unpaid care obligations among women and men all contribute to women's adaptive capacities. 

Women have proven time and again that they can be powerful and effective agents of change. They are and can continue to be at the frontlines of climate change adaptation with the right enabling environment.

Sarker, M. R. (2020). Technical efficiency and gender difference in time poverty of boro rice production in Bangladesh (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis). University of the Philippines Los Baños.