Women at the intersection of climate change, poverty, and vulnerability in MENA

The Middle East and North Africa is both a climate change hotspot and one of the world’s most gender unequal regions. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report 2023, the region is the furthest away from equality with a 62.6% parity score, suggesting it would take 152 years to fully attain parity at the current rate of progress.

As a result of gender inequality, women face disproportionate risks from climate change. These risks can be attributed to women’s involvement in climate-sensitive livelihoods, such as agriculture and manual labor, in an effort to improve their families’ financial status and support their male counterparts. Around 50% of the workforce in the agricultural sector in the MENA region is female. Faced with climate disasters, women are struggling to find accessible water and are pushed to cultivate less fertile land. This limits their ability to grow crops and earn an income and contributes to food insecurity. Furthermore, discriminatory laws and prevailing social norms impede women’s access to resources, including land, credit, and water. This hampers their ability to develop their own agri-businesses and starkly contrasts with the high percentage of women working in the agriculture sector across the region — a figure that reaches up to 52% in Morocco and 45% in Egypt.

According to a report by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), “Women own less than 5 percent of the agricultural land in the MENA region, and they are often excluded from decision-making related to land management.” The impacts of climate change also cause an increase in women’s and girls’ already unequal unpaid care and domestic responsibilities, trapping them in “time poverty” and constraining their access to education and employment opportunities. For example, in Yemen, as a result of recurring droughts and aggravated water scarcity, girls have been forced to drop out of school to shoulder the growing burden as water becomes increasingly inaccessible and time-consuming to collect.

With the addition of regional conflicts, the result is mass displacement of women and girls, particularly as proximity to conflict increases. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, due to the sweeping floods that took place in Yemen between May and August 2020, about 300,000 individuals lost their homes, crops, and livestock, and were subsequently internally displaced. In these situations of climate-induced migration, women face greater risks than men due to gender-differentiated roles and the far greater burden of care work as compared to men. Therefore, when disasters hit, women are less likely to abandon their homes than men. In addition, the displacement process puts women and girls at high risk of gender-based violence, human trafficking, injury, and death. The UN Environment Program found as much as a 20-30% increase in human trafficking, particularly of women, in the wake of climate disasters. Furthermore, women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during a disaster. Vulnerabilities are further amplified for women who are of ethnic or linguistic minorities, have disabilities, are pregnant, or are older.

Climate action and ways to close the gender gap in the MENA region

The data mentioned above indicates that deep-rooted gender inequalities are not a by-product of climate change. Rather, persistent patriarchal systems and prevailing cultural norms are entrenched at various levels and exacerbate women’s vulnerabilities to climate change by limiting their access to social and natural resources and putting them in considerable danger, thus hampering their adaptive capacities and resilience to climate change. However, as laid out below there are ways to transform these threats and turn them into opportunities.

Mainstreaming gender in national adaptation plans for climate change

Despite being disproportionately affected by climate change impacts, women have an important role to play in climate change mitigation and adaptation in the MENA region. However, research indicates that only a few countries have managed to mainstream gender in their national adaptation plans on climate change. For example, only Jordan, Palestine, and Sudan have focused on the analysis of gender aspects of climate change, provided guidelines for women’s participation in national climate change policies, and emphasized gender-responsive adaptation measures. In addition, Tunisia is the only country in the region to indicate gender-based violence as a gender-differentiated impact of climate change in its Nationally Determined Contributions.

On the private sector level, research indicates that greater female representation in policymaking circles and leading positions can result in the adoption of gender responsive and resilient adaptation policies and accelerate a green transition to less carbon intensive economies. A recent study shows that women-led firms have higher environmental, social, and governance scores than other companies, and that women-owned businesses are more likely to pursue energy efficiency practices. Furthermore, women’s leadership is positively correlated with increased transparency regarding measuring and disclosing environmental footprints. While there are emerging initiatives to include women in leadership positions and in the jobs spurring the green transition, it is estimated that about $575 billion is lost annually due to the legal and social barriers that impede female representation in high-level government and corporate discussions on climate policies and decarbonization initiatives. Therefore, women and girls in the MENA region should be included more prominently in climate change policymaking and other relevant policy arenas. In this regard, the full participation of women in all aspects of national adaptation plans, including planning, implementation, and evaluation, represents a key opportunity to develop gender-responsive climate policies and action.

Recognizing women as “workers” through legal reforms and cultural transformation

Ensuring women’s access to natural and financial resources is critical for devolving sustainable solutions to the interlinked challenges of food insecurity, water scarcity, and climate change. In many MENA countries, women are heavily involved in small-scale agriculture; however, they are widely categorized as “helpers” to their male counterparts rather than being considered workers in their own right. There are many cultural and legal reasons for this discrimination and unfair differentiation in status. Firstly, women remain severely discriminated against in terms of land ownership, holding less than 5% of agricultural land. It is true that many MENA states have attempted to strengthen women’s land ownership rights by embarking on land distribution and titling reforms. However, these efforts are often thwarted by customary practices and legal constraints associated with personal status laws derived from interpretations of Sharia law (Islamic religious law). This legalized gender discrimination has seen some improvement, for example in Morocco, in the wake of the amendment of the family code that enabled gender equality in access to ownership rights.

To promote gender equity in land ownership, changing related cultural norms must go hand in hand with legal and policy reforms. Here, education and participatory approaches can play a pivotal role in understanding gender norms and community power relations in terms of decision-making and control of land and resources, as well as in identifying opportunities for social and gender equity. Raising the legal literacy of key stakeholders, such as women, land reform authorities, male farmers, village authorities, and male household heads, is crucial to ensure women's access to land and other productive assets. Furthermore, eliminating existing legal impediments and establishing supporting legal services, particularly in rural areas, are essential for encouraging the reform of male-dominated traditions of property ownership, improving women’s access to land and other forms of property, and enforcing equal pay policies in agriculture. The upholding of zero tolerance for sexual harassment would also aid in closing the gender gap in agriculture.

Women at the heart of the green transition: Nexus of data and skills development

With the accelerated green transition in the MENA region, it is essential to collect and analyze gender-disaggregated data on the role of women in all sectors as a way to identify the gaps and challenges that must be overcome to integrate gender dimensions into future climate solutions and public policies. According to the Gender Data Gaps in the Environment and Climate Change in 2023 report, there is now more (though incomplete) data on the role of women in environmental decision-making, land tenure, access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene in the region. However, other gender data gaps are still entrenched at various levels, and new gaps have emerged in areas like clean energy and climate-induced migration and displacement. To encourage the collection and analysis of gender data on the environment and climate change, regional governments need to make better use of existing data from national statistical offices, international organizations, and academic institutions. These efforts should be aligned with investments and innovations in data collection by relying on digital platforms and other technologies such as social media, mobile phone applications, financial transaction data, and satellite imagery.

Digital data would complement in-person data collection and foster greater participation by women and girls to voice their perspectives and experiences in relation to climate and the environment. Collaboration with local women’s organizations and movements is another way to ensure that women have an active role in compiling gender-aggregated, locally relevant data. Additionally, the application of a gender lens to vulnerability and risk assessments that are carried out at the national and regional levels would further account for discrepancies.

In order to close the gender gap and empower women to actively participate in the green transition, it is crucial to develop and improve women’s green skills to benefit from new job opportunities that are being created. For example, the World Bank predicts that achieving 2030 targets in renewable energy and energy efficiency could create around 2 million new jobs in Egypt and 760,000 in Morocco by 2050. However, the green skill gender gap is growing: Research found that globally women make up only 32% of the renewable energy workforce and represent only 23% of managers in water utilities. Sectoral and occupational inequities are also present: Female enrollment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is as low as 8%, and women are less likely than men to enter and more likely to leave the STEM workforce. This gender gap is particularly prevalent in the MENA region. Therefore, developing green skills among women will be key as the region reduces carbon use. Without a concerted effort across education and training institutions to upskill and reskill women in green sectors and support the STEM school-to-work transition, women will remain on the sidelines of the green transition with limited opportunities to shape its course and while bearing the greatest share of its economic burdens.


Women and girls in the MENA region experience climate change in uniquely gendered ways owing to deeply entrenched gender inequalities that are aggravated by other vulnerabilities, like water scarcity, unequal access to basic social services and natural and financial assets, political marginalization, chronic conflicts, and mass displacement. Moreover, many women in the region rely primarily on climate-sensitive livelihoods, which makes them highly vulnerable to climate change and its related impacts, resulting in a heightened risk of food insecurity, poverty, and exposure to gender-based violence.

Yet women can — and do — play a critical role in responding to climate change due to their local knowledge of and capacity to manage natural resources and promote sustainable practices at the household and community level. In addition, women’s participation in climate change decision-making is correlated with greater responsiveness to citizens’ needs and priorities at the time of and in the wake of climate disasters. Therefore, we need to understand that climate change and its related injustices are also about gender inequality and the overall struggle of women to live a decent life in a swiftly changing climate. Once we understand this, then we can develop more effective and gender-responsive policies and actions to bring about the deep transformations required to tackle the climate crisis and ensure social justice, both on an equal footing.


Zeina Moneer holds a PhD in environmental politics from Freiburg University in Germany and her research interests include environmental movements, environmental justice, environmental communication, international polices of climate change negotiations and adaption, and sustainability transition with a particular focus on the MENA region.

Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.