A qualitative comparative analysis of women’s agency and adaptive capacity in climate change hotspots in Asia and Africa


There is growing concern about sustainable and equitable adaptation in climate change hotspots, commonly understood as locations that concentrate high climatic variability, societal vulnerability and negative impacts on livelihood systems. Emphasizing gender within these debates highlights how demographic, socioeconomic and agro-ecological contexts mediate the experiences and outcomes of climate change. Drawing on data from 25 qualitative case studies across three hotspots in Africa and Asia, analysed using qualitative comparative analysis, we show how and in what ways women’s agency, or the ability to make meaningful choices and strategic decisions, contributes to adaptation responses. We find that environmental stress is a key depressor of women’s agency even when household structures and social norms are supportive or legal entitlements are available. These findings have implications for the effective implementation of multilateral agreements such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Location of 25 study sites across three climate hotspots in Africa and Asia.
Fig. 2: Causal pathways explaining variation in case studies.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request. No other article has been published from the QCA dataset, although there are articles in preparation from the larger research projects.


  1. 1.

    de Sherbinin, A. Climate Change hotspots mapping: what have we learned? Climatic Change 123, 23–37 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    De Souza, K. et al. Vulnerability to climate change in three hot spots in Africa and Asia: key issues for policy-relevant adaptation and resilience-building research. Reg. Environ. Change 15, 747–753 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Kaijser, A. & Kronsell, A. Climate change through the lens of intersectionality. Environ. Polit. 23, 417–433 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Iniesta-Arandia, I. et al. A synthesis of convergent reflections, tensions and silences in linking gender and global environmental change research. Ambio 45, 383–393 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Pearse, R. Gender and climate change. WIREs Clim. Change 8, e451 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Carr, E. R. & Thompson, M. C. Gender and climate change adaptation in agrarian settings: current thinking, new directions and research frontiers. Geogr. Compass 8, 182–197 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Pelling, M. & High, C. Understanding adaptation: what can social capital offer assessments of adaptive capacity? Glob. Environ. Change 15, 308–319 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Adger, N. W. Social capital, collective action and adaptation to climate change. Econ. Geogr. 79, 387–404 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Adger, W. N. & Vincent, K. Uncertainty in adaptive capacity. C. R. Geosci. 337, 399–410 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Guérin, I., Kumar, S. & Agier, I. Women’s empowerment: power to act or power over other women? Lessons from Indian microfinance. Oxf. Dev. Stud. 41, S76–S94 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Turner, M. D. Climate vulnerability as a relational concept. Geoforum 68, 29–38 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Alston, M. Women and adaptation. WIREs Clim. Change 4, 351–358 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Rao, N. Assets, agency and legitimacy: towards a relational understanding of gender equality policy and practice. World Dev. 95, 43–54 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Rao, N. Caste, kinship and life course: rethinking women’s work and agency in rural South India. Fem. Econ. 20, 78–102 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Barad, K. Posthumanist performativity: toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs J. Women Cult. Soc. 28, 801–831 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Bhattarai, B., Beilin, R. & Ford, R. Gender, agrobiodiversity and climate change: a study of adaptation practices in the Nepal Himalayas. World Dev. 70, 122–132 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Djoudi, H. & Brockhaus, M. Is adaptation to climate change gender neutral? Lessons from communities dependent on livestock and forests in northern Mali. Int. Rev. 13, 123–135 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Tschakert, P. & Machado, M. Gender justice and rights in climate change adaptation: opportunities and pitfalls. Ethics Soc. Welf. 6, 275–289 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Singh, C. Migration as a driver of changing household structures: implications for local livelihoods and adaptation. Migr. Dev. 8, 301–319 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Onta, N. & Resurreccion, B. P. The role of gender and caste in climate adaptation strategies in Nepal emerging change and persistent inequalities in the far-western region. Mt Res. Dev. 31, 351–356 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Rao, N. et al. Managing risk, changing aspirations and household dynamics: implications for wellbeing and adaptation in semi-arid Africa and India. World Dev. 125, 104667 (2020).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Moosa, C. S. & Tuana, N. Mapping a research agenda concerning gender and climate change: a review of the literature. Hypatia 29, 677–694 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Rao, N., Lawson, E. T., Raditloaneng, W. N., Solomon, D. & Angula, M. N. Gendered vulnerabilities to climate change: insights from the semi-arid regions of Africa and Asia. Clim. Dev. 11, 14–26 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Arora-Jonsson, S. Virtue and vulnerability: discourses on women, gender and climate change. Glob. Environ. Change 21, 744–751 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Kabeer, N. Resources, agency, achievements: reflections on the measurement of Women’s empowerment. Dev. Change 30, 435–464 (1999).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Kabeer, N. in Institutions, Relations and Outcomes: A Framework and Case Studies for Gender-aware Planning (eds Kabeer, N. & Subrahmanian, R.) 3–48 (Kali for Women, Zubaan, 1999).

  27. 27.

    Sen, G. in Informal Institutions: How Social Norms Help or Hinder Development (eds Juttin, J. et al.) 49–72 (OECD, 2007).

  28. 28.

    Singh, C. Is participatory watershed development building local adaptive capacity? Findings from a case study in Rajasthan, India. Environ. Dev. 25, 43–58 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Andersson, E. & Gabrielsson, S. ‘Because of poverty, we had to come together’: collective action for improved food security in rural Kenya and Uganda. Int. J. Agric. Sustain. 10, 245–262 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Vincent, K. E. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (eds Field, C. B. et al.) 105–107 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  31. 31.

    Khan, A. S. & Cundill, G. Hotspots 2.0: toward an integrated understanding of stressors and response options. Ambio 48, 639–648 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Tschakert, P., van Oort, B., St Clair, A. L. & LaMadrid, A. Inequality and transformation analyses: a complementary lens for addressing vulnerability to climate change. Clim. Dev. 5, 340–350 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Djoudi, H. et al. Beyond dichotomies: gender and intersecting inequalities in climate change studies. Ambio 45, 248–262 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Denton, F. F. Climate change vulnerability, impacts and adaptation: why does gender matter? Gender Dev. 10, 10–20 (2002).

    Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Diffenbaugh, N. S. & Giorgi, F. Climate change hotspots in the CMIP5 global climate model ensemble. Climatic Change 114, 813–822 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Ragin, C. C Redesigning Social Inquiry: Fuzzy Sets and Beyond (Univ. Chicago Press, 2008).

  37. 37.

    Rihoux, B. & Ragin, C. C. Configurational Comparative Methods: Qualitative Comparative Analysis (Sage, 2008).

  38. 38.

    Schneider, C. Q. & Wagemann, C. Set-theoretic Methods for the Social Sciences: A Guide to Qualitative Comparative Analysis (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012).

  39. 39.

    Ragin, C. C The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies (Univ. California Press, 1987).

  40. 40.

    Ford, J. D. et al. Opinion: big data has big potential for applications to climate change adaptation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 10729–10732 (2016).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Berrang-Ford, L., Pearce, T. & Ford, J. D. Systematic review approaches for climate change adaptation research. Reg. Environ. Change 15, 755–769 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Grown, C., Gupta, G. R., Kes, A. & du millénaire, P. O. Taking Action: Achieving Gender Equality and Empowering Women (Earthscan, 2005).

  43. 43.

    Ford, J. D. et al. The status of climate change adaptation in Africa and Asia. Reg. Environ. Change 15, 801–814 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Kilroy, G. A review of the biophysical impacts of climate change in three hotspot regions in Africa and Asia. Reg. Environ. Change 15, 771–782 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Tucker, J. et al. Social vulnerability in three high-poverty climate change hot spots: what does the climate change literature tell us? Reg. Environ. Change 15, 783–800 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Resurrección, B. P. et al. in The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment (eds Wester, P. et al.) 491–516 (Springer, 2019).

  47. 47.

    Gioli, G. & Milan, A. in Routledge Handbook of Environmental Displacement and Migration 135–150 (Routledge & GSE Research, 2018).

  48. 48.

    Singh, C., Rahman, A., Srinivas, A. & Bazaz, A. Risks and responses in rural India: implications for local climate change adaptation action. Clim. Risk Manag. 21, 52–68 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Rao, N., Gazdar, H., Chanchani, D. & Ibrahim, M. Women’s agricultural work and nutrition in South Asia: from pathways to a cross-disciplinary, grounded analytical framework. Food Policy 82, 50–62 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Solomon, D. & Rao, N. Wells and wellbeing: gender dimensions of groundwater dependence in South India. Econ. Polit. Wkly 53, 38–45 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Rao, N. From abandonment to autonomy: gendered strategies for coping with climate change, Isiolo County, Kenya. Geoforum 102, 27–37 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Lawson, E. T., Alare, R. S., Salifu, A. R. Z. & Thompson-Hall, M. Dealing with climate change in semi-arid Ghana: understanding intersectional perceptions and adaptation strategies of women farmers. GeoJournal https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-019-09974-4 (2019).

  53. 53.

    Rivers, L. III et al. Mental models of food security in rural Mali. Environ. Syst. Decis. 38, 33–51 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Singh, C. in En-gendering Climate Change: Learnings from South Asia (eds Hans, A. et al.) (Routledge, 2019).

  55. 55.

    Angula, M. A Gendered and Intersectional Analysis for Understanding Vulnerability to the Changing Climate Within Socially Diverse Communities in Semi-Arid Regions, North-Central Namibia. PhD thesis, Univ. Cape Town (2019).

  56. 56.

    Fröhlich, C. & Gioli, G. Gender, conflict and global environmental change. Peace Rev. 27, 137–146 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Skogen, K., Helland, H. & Kaltenborn, B. Concern about climate change, biodiversity loss, habitat degradation and landscape change: embedded in different packages of environmental concern? J. Nat. Conserv. 44, 12–20 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Goodrich, C. G., Udas, P. B. & Larrington-Spencer, H. Conceptualizing gendered vulnerability to climate change in the Hindu Kush Himalaya: contextual conditions and drivers of change. Environ. Dev. 31, 9–18 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Goodrich, C. G., Prakash, A. & Udas, P. B. Gendered vulnerability and adaptation in Hindu-Kush Himalayas: research insights. Environ. Dev. 31, 1–8 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Ahmed, A., Lawson, E. T., Mensah, A., Gordon, C. & Padgham, J. Adaptation to climate change or non-climatic stressors in semi-arid regions? Evidence of gender differentiation in three agrarian districts of Ghana. Environ. Dev. 20, 45–58 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Jost, C. et al. Understanding gender dimensions of agriculture and climate change in smallholder farming communities. Clim. Dev. 5529, 1–12 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    Otto, I. M. et al. Social vulnerability to climate change: a review of concepts and evidence. Reg. Environ. Change 17, 1651–1662 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  63. 63.

    Cramer, L., Förch, W., Mutie, I. & Thornton, P. K. Connecting women, connecting men: how communities and organizations interact to strengthen adaptive capacity and food security in the face of climate change. Gend. Technol. Dev. 20, 169–199 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  64. 64.

    Ghosh, S. K., Banerjee, S. & Naaz, F. Women in Indian Bengal Delta: adapting to climate change induced migration. Econ. Polit. Wkly 53, 63–69 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Sen, A. K. Development as Freedom (Anchor Books, 1999).

  66. 66.

    David, R., Niang, O. K., Myers, M., Ruthven, O. & Yabre, P. Changing places? Women, Resource Management and Migration in the Sahel: Case Studies from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali and Sudan (SOS Sahel, 1995).

  67. 67.

    Kothari, U. Staying put and staying poor? J. Int. Dev. 15, 645–657 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  68. 68.

    Ghosh, J. Migration and Gender Empowerment: Recent Trends and Emerging Issues Human Development Research Paper No. 2009/04 (UNDP, 2009).

  69. 69.

    Bhatta, G. D., Aggarwal, P. K., Poudel, S. & Belgrave, D. A. Climate-induced migration in south asia: migration decisions and the gender dimensions of adverse climatic events. J. Rural Community Dev. 10, 1–23 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  70. 70.

    Nightingale, A. J. G. in Climate Change Adaptation and Development: Transforming Paradigms and Practices (eds Inderberg, T. H., Eriksen, S., O’Brien, K. & Sygna, L.) 219–234 (Routledge, 2015).

  71. 71.

    Agarwal, B. Gender, environment and poverty interlinks: regional variations and temporal shifts in rural india, 1979–91. World Dev. 25, 23–52 (1997).

    Google Scholar 

  72. 72.

    Nagoda, S. & Nightingale, A. J. Participation and power in climate change adaptation policies: vulnerability in food security programs in Nepal. World Dev. 100, 85–93 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  73. 73.

    Social Institutions and Gender Index: Synthesis Report (OECD, 2014).

  74. 74.

    Chant, S. in Gender, Asset Accumulation and Just Cities (ed. Moser, C. O. N.) 33–51 (Routledge, 2015).

  75. 75.

    Goulden, M., Naess, L. O., Vincent, K. & Adger, W. N. Adapting to Climate Change: Thresholds, Values, Governance (eds Adger, W. N., Lorenzoni, I. & O’Brien, K.) 448–464 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009).

  76. 76.

    Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihood in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS, 2007).

  77. 77.

    Karlekar, M. in Women and Seasonal Labour Migration (ed. Sandbergen, S.) 23–78 (Sage, 1995).

  78. 78.

    Rihoux, B. Qualitative comparative analysis (QCA), anno 2013: reframing the comparative method’s seminal statements. Swiss Polit. Sci. Rev. 19, 233–245 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  79. 79.

    Rihoux, B. & Lobe, B. in The SAGE Handbook of Case-Based Methods (eds Byrne, D. & Ragin, C. C.) 222–242 (Sage, 2009).

  80. 80.

    Byrne, D. & Ragin, C. C. The SAGE Handbook of Case-Based Methods (Sage, 2009).

  81. 81.

    Ragin, C. C. & Rihoux, B. Qualitative comparative analysis (QCA): state of the art and prospects. Qual. Methods 2, 3 (2004).

    Google Scholar 

  82. 82.

    Schneider, C. Q. & Wagemann, C. Reducing complexity in qualitative comparative analysis (QCA): remote and proximate factors and the consolidation of democracy. Eur. J. Polit. Res. 45, 751–786 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  83. 83.

    Basurto, X. & Speer, J. Structuring the calibration of qualitative data as sets for qualitative comparative analysis (QCA). Field Methods 24, 155–174 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  84. 84.

    Ragin, C. C. Set relations in social research: evaluating their consistency and coverage. Polit. Anal. 14, 291–310 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  85. 85.

    Kent, R. & Olsen, W. Using fsQCA: A Brief Guide and Workshop for Fuzzy-Set Qualitative Comparative Analysis (Univ. Sterling, 2008).

  86. 86.

    Rubinson, C. Contradictions in fsQCA. Qual. Quant. 47, 2847–2867 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was carried out under the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), with financial support from the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DfID) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada. The views expressed in this work are those of the creators and do not necessarily represent those of DfID and IDRC or its Board of Governors. We would additionally like to acknowledge the financial contribution of the four CARIAA consortia and the CARIAA Small Opportunities Grant that made this collaboration possible. Case study contributors additionally include S. Pillai, D. Solomon, E. Lawson, R. Alare, M. Angula, A. Sidibe, L. Camfield, P. Udas, N. Habib, J. Ferdous, C.V. Namchu, C.G. Goodrich, N. Khandekar, S. Badhwal, G. Gorti, S. Sen, N. Varma, Z. Babagaliyeva, M. Dime, M. Diop, A.N. Lázár and G. Prati.

Author information




N.R. led the theoretical conceptualization of the key arguments. A.M. led the analysis using QCA methodology. A.P. coordinated the process and review of literature. C.S. coordinated the case writing, contributed to the literature review and put together the supplementary material and references. A.Q. and P.P. contributed text on the two pathways. K.V. provided implications of the cases and comments on the text and structure, and C.B. provided critical comments.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nitya Rao.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Andrea Nightingale, Amy Quandt, Benoît Rihoux and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 2–6.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Table 1

Description of the 25 qualitative case studies

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Rao, N., Mishra, A., Prakash, A. et al. A qualitative comparative analysis of women’s agency and adaptive capacity in climate change hotspots in Asia and Africa. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 964–971 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0638-y

Download citation

Further reading


Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing