As climate changes, men and women likely to migrate in different patterns

CU researcher is at the forefront of this emerging area of study

By Clint Talbott

Lori Hunter

Lori Hunter, associate professor of sociology

In West Africa, climate change is reported to have pushed men to migrate north to Europe, by boat, in search of work. In Nepal, logging has prompted some subsistence-farming women to migrate toward more-abundant firewood.

As social scientists grapple with how humans are likely to adapt to drought and other results of the changing climate, they have begun studying the potential for climate-related migration. What they have not done, until recently, is to investigate how differently that migration will affect men and women.

Lori Hunter, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, is among a relatively small group of researchers striving to clarify that picture. While she completes her own research on the gender dynamics of climate-related migration, she views previous research on disaster-related and other migration as a guidepost.

The work of Hunter, also a research associate with the Population Program at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Science, is on the scientific and policymakers’ radar. She gave an invited talk on the topic last January to the National Academy of Sciences.

And Hunter is co-author of a chapter on gender, migration and climate in “Climate Change and Migration,” a new book from UNESCO Publishing and Cambridge University Press.

“We know some about gender-migration dynamics, and we know about general environment-migration patterns, but few people put those two together,” Hunter said. “In all parts of the world, gender shapes migration.”

The potential for human migration propelled by environmental change has been studied across a variety of disciplines, but that body research has blossomed within the last four years.

The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reflects that recent shift, noting that “a few studies have examined the need for and potential for migration, resettlement and relocation as an adaptive strategy (for climate change), but the cultural implications of large-scale migration are not well understood.”

This year, the Asian Development Bank reported that climate change could prompt 150 million to 300 million people to migrate by mid-century. Noting that in 2010, extreme weather in Malaysia, Pakistan, China, the Philippines and Sri Lanka had caused temporary or longer-term dislocation of millions, the report added: “This process is set to accelerate in coming decades as climate change leads to more extreme weather.”

Hunter appreciates the rising interest in climate-related migration but contends that gender-migration dynamics should be factored into climate projections. “Cultural norms are going to shape who migrates, and of course there are implications for who’s left behind.”

In her book chapter, co-authored by Emmanuel David of Villanova University, Hunter cited existing research as guideposts to future study of gender and migration. She notes that changing climate might exert factors that either “push” or “pull” men and women to migrate for different reasons and with different results.

For instance, in cultures in which men migrate without women, they leave behind female-headed households, which are among the poorest in the world, Hunter notes. Research also shows that male migrants tend to send less money home than do female migrants.

Varying gender-migration dynamics cut two ways, she notes. “Men are vulnerable, too. When we’re talking about gender vulnerability, we’re talking not only about women.” West African men face significant danger as they migrate by boat on hazardous seas. Migrating Filipino women, on the other hand, tend to maintain their social status as head of their families even while working abroad.

A woman in South Africa moves a wheelbarrow full of materials. Lori Hunter, associate professor of sociology and a research associate with the Population Program at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Science, has been studying populations here and in Mexico. Photo courtesy of Lori Hunter.

Research on natural disasters (such as tsunamis and hurricanes) is also informative, Hunter notes: “Results suggest that at all phases of a disaster—before, during and after—women and men respond to risk differently, not because of biological sex differences, but because of location within social structures.”

In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, some women perished because of never learning to swim or because debris ripped off their clothing, and they chose death indoors over the “shame of running outside naked to escape.”

Female-headed households have been less likely to return to New Orleans after Katrina, other research shows. Nearly 15 percent of women workers in New Orleans lacked a vehicle in 2005 (compared to 4.3 percent of women nationwide), demonstrating one pathway through which weather-related evacuation is “gendered.” Women’s relative lack of mobility hindered their ability to find work elsewhere after a disaster or to return home later.

While commenting on the distinction between “hard” and “soft” science, Hunter said, “I like to say that social science is really the ‘hard’ science, because we’re trying to understand the complexities within human behavior.”

Hunter’s research on climate, migration and gender has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, and other grant proposals are in the queue. But time is of the essence, she said.

“I get really nervous, because (this research) needs to be done quickly, and the academy tends not to move quickly.”

See more about the CU Population Center at the Institute of Behavioral Science at

Similar Posts: