Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Raya Muttarak

Raya Muttarak

Raya Muttarak is based at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital, and works as a research scientist at Vienna Institute of Demography, Austrian Academy of Sciences and a research scholar at IIASA. Her research interests lie in the intersection of social inequality, differential vulnerability, and environmental change. She holds an MSc and DPhil in sociology from the University of Oxford.

Mar 14th 2017 by Raya Muttarak

Female-Headed Households Hit Harder by Climate Change

Taking action on climate change is one top priority of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially since its adverse impacts can undermine sustainable development. At the same time, reducing gender inequalities and empowering women and girls is fundamental in making progress across all the goals. These two issues are also closely linked: in certain circumstances, women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men, for example, due to weaker physical ability, lower socioeconomic status, and greater social, economic and political barriers in coping capacity.

This is why, in recent work, we have been exploring the differential impacts of climate change on subgroups of population such as by gender, age, education, and income. The rising number of households headed by women across the world and, in particular, in southern Africa calls for special attention to their economic welfare. In general female-headed households are more likely to be in poverty. Under the context of the changing climate, it is likely that weather extremes, rainfall variability, and natural disasters associated with climate change will exacerbate economic disadvantages of female-headed households.

Female-headed households are more economically vulnerable to climate-related shocks for three big reasons, which researchers call a “triple burden”. First, persistent gender disparities in the labor market and other productive activities, including limited access to formal credit markets and land contribute to greater economic disadvantage for female-headed households. Second, these households often have a higher total dependency ratio–that is, women take care of a higher proportion of dependent children and the elderly. Third, women who are heads of households with no other adult help have a “double day burden” where they have to fulfil both domestic duties and make money outside the home. That means that female heads face greater time and mobility constraints and may have to work fewer hours or choose lower-paying jobs.

Under the context of the changing climate, it is likely that weather extremes, rainfall variability, and natural disasters associated with climate change will exacerbate economic disadvantages of female-headed households."

Add climatic shocks to an already disadvantaged family, and the livelihood disruption can be a catastrophe. However, there have been very few studies of how female-headed households actually fare in the context of climate change.

In our new study published in World Development, we used household survey data from South Africa and local rainfall data over the period 2006-2012 to examine how female-headed households fare economically when facing variation in rainfall. The study provides new empirical evidence on economic welfare of households headed by women following climatic shocks.

The new and unique part of our study is that we are able to control for observed and unobserved characteristics of households using a statistical technique called fixed effects estimation, which enables us to control for the household-specific effects on income. It also lets us account for different income trajectories in households with different demographic compositions. Furthermore, we were able to evaluate the impacts of income shock on economic vulnerability of female-headed households using rainfall variability as an exogenous source of risk. Income loss due to other variables such as death of a household member or losing a job are likely to be endogenously determined by household characteristics, that is, female heads have lower level of education and hence are more likely to fall into unemployment. But because rainfall variation is not connected to household factors, we were able to measure the causal effect of climate variability on incomes, comparing different household types.

Our study shows that female-headed households in South Africa are indeed more vulnerable to climate variability than households headed by two adults, and not just because of the greater economic disadvantages that they start with. Even after controlling for household socioeconomic characteristics, female heads still fare worse when facing economic shocks. This might be due to limited access to family support and protective social networks who can step in to help in time of crisis.

Our analysis also reveals that not all types of female-headed households are vulnerable to rainfall variability. This finding is especially important for designing a policy to reduce vulnerability of female-headed households. Given different routes into female headship, we show that never-married female heads, women with a non-resident spouse (for example, where the husband has moved to work in another region), and widows have greater economic vulnerability to climate variability. The group of female-headed households where the female head has never been married is the largest of these groups. Households with adults of both genders where the female works but the male does not work and households of separated or divorced women are no more vulnerable than male-headed households.

We also found that vulnerability to climate impacts is related to the effect of rainfall on agriculture. We find that female-headed households face greater economic vulnerability only in the districts where rainfall has a large effect on loss in agricultural yields. Regardless of household engagement in agriculture, crop losses in a district can affect food and livelihood security through surges in food prices and shortfalls in local demand.

Although our study focuses on South Africa, the results showing that female-headed households are more vulnerable to climate variability call for particular interventions to their vulnerability in the context of climate change. The number of female-headed households is rising, with an exceptionally high proportion in southern African countries (36.3% in Lesotho (2006), 43.9% in Namibia (2013), 47.9% in Swaziland (2007). As climate variation and extremes also increase, policies to reduce vulnerability to climate change need to explicitly consider the plight of this subgroup of population.


Flatø, M., Muttarak, R., & Pelser, A. (2016). Women, weather, and woes: The triangular dynamics of female-headed households, economic vulnerability, and climate variability in South Africa. World Development. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2016.08.015

Muttarak, R., Lutz, W., & Jiang, L. (2015). What can demographers contribute to the study of vulnerability? Vienna Yearbook of Population Research, 13, 1–13. doi:10.1553/populationyearbook2015s001

Rosenhouse, S. (1989). Identifying the poor : is “headship” a useful concept? (No. LSM58) (pp. 1–62). Washington, DC: The World Bank. Accessed 24 February 2015

Image Credits: Women producing Marula Oil / CIFOR under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0