The Invisible Sufferers of Climate Change: Women in Informal Settlements

By Brittney Barclay

The impacts of climate change are felt by everyone around the world, but not to the same degree. Developing countries are experiencing the impacts of climate change more severely than those in developed countries, despite contributing less to overall global emissions. Gender inequalities coupled with social norms result in women experiencing the impacts of climate change more severely than men. In developing countries, informal settlements are areas where residents have no security or tenure, meaning they are cut off from or lack basic government services. Informal settlements are at the forefront of climate change due to often being located in flood-prone areas. Poor infrastructure puts settlements at an increased risk of damage during extreme weather events. As climate-related events intensify, women will struggle the most and be at the highest risk of being unable to build back, especially those in informal settlements. It is critical to find solutions to root problems that make informal settlements so vulnerable to climate disasters to ensure residents are more resilient and able to adapt to climate change.

Women, Poverty, and Climate Change

As people around the world grapple with more climate-related disasters, women living in poverty will face increasing vulnerabilities and inequalities. Climate disasters alter the lives of everyone involved. However, women continue to be impacted at a higher rate of violence due to existing inequalities within developing countries. Women are primary caregivers in their households and often bear the brunt of climate-related disasters. Climate change disrupts women’s livelihoods, diminishes food security, and increases the prevalence of waterborne diseases and sexual violence. By recognizing and addressing the unique challenges that are faced by women who live in poverty, communities can foster a more inclusive and sustainable response to climate change.

Women do not have the same access to education as men, which can leave them unaware of how to manage climate-related risks. In fact, during times of disaster, young girls are often taken out of school early to help rebuild their lives. In many developing countries, women are responsible for maintaining the house, including collecting food, and water, and caring for children. When disasters hit, the travel time to access these critical resources is extended, leaving less time for women to work or do other jobs. With increased travel times during climate disasters, women experience increased rates of domestic abuse, child marriage, and rape. This is because climate disasters serve as a time of high stress for men and often take their stress out on the women in their lives or communities.

The Vulnerabilities of Informal Settlements

A policy brief from World Vision published in 2021 suggests that more than 1 billion people including 350 million children are currently living in informal settlements. These settlements exist due to an increase in rural-to-urban migration and the inability of governments to accommodate and adapt to the larger number of people moving to city centres in search of economic opportunities. Informal settlements are places where poor services, gender inequalities, informal employment, and extreme pollution result in exacerbated experiences of climate change.

Many factors leave informal settlements particularly vulnerable to climate change and people’s ability to adapt to them. Poor locations, infrastructure, and lack of government connection leave settlements more vulnerable to preparing and rebuilding after climate disasters. Residents of informal settlements are more vulnerable to the impacts of extreme rainfall, waterborne diseases, extreme heat, fires, or water scarcity than those living outside of the settlements. Being cut off from government support means residents do not have access to risk-prevention measures or access to information about incoming storms. Without government support, it will remain a challenge for residents to rebuild their lives after a disaster.

A Case Study: Bwaise Informal Settlement, Uganda

An example of the impacts climate-related disasters can have on women in poverty can be found in Kampala, Uganda, a city in which over 50% of the population is living in informal settlements. Bwaise is at a consistent risk of high flooding due to its location in a low-lying area and poor drainage systems. Flooding in Bwaise significantly impacts women, as social norms leave them confined to their homes and responsible for domestic aspects of life, increasing their vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Flooding is becoming more common and extreme, often providing insufficient time for families to rebuild their lives. Bwaise is excluded from government decisions, and they lack proper waste management and drainage systems. This means when heavy rainfall hits the settlement, water cannot effectively be drained, resulting in flooding. Floods result in houses being swept away, and death, and due to poor drainage, human waste traveling in the water makes it a breeding ground for waterborne diseases.  

The situation is not entirely bleak; non-governmental organizations in Uganda have recognized the importance of creating adaptive solutions for informal settlements to allow these communities to become more resilient to flooding. Members of Tree Adoption Uganda have implemented a waste management project, with the intent to reduce flooding in Bwaise. The NGO has included local members in monthly clean-ups and works to inspire collective action.

The Imperative of Implementing Key and Efficient Solutions

Climate change amplifies existing gender inequalities in vulnerable communities that will continue to bear the brunt of climate disasters. Governments must recognize informal settlements to begin addressing issues that make them more vulnerable during climate disasters in the first place. Women in developing countries voices are often ignored and their concerns are not taken seriously when it comes to climate adaptive solutions. Women need to have a voice to ensure all communities can become more resilient and adaptive to climate change. It can only be through being more gender inclusive, considering the needs of everyone, and increasing educational opportunities for women that developing countries will be able to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.   

Brittney Barclay is a Political Science and Public Affairs Master of Arts student at SLU – Madrid from Toronto, Canada.

To quote this article or video, please use the following reference:  Brittney Barclay (2023), “The Invisible Sufferers of Climate Change: Women in Informal Settlements,”

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Featured Image Credit: Kampala, Uganda by Jonathan Ward