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Women at the Forefront of Drought and Desertification

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Artwork by Tanishk Katalkar

Drought is one of the biggest challenges in developed and developing nations alike. While the Global South suffers the most from droughts, the Global North also faves water issues but with better-coping mechanisms. Forecasts predict that by 2050, nearly three-quarters of the world will have experienced drought in some shape or form. 2.3 billion people already face water stress, drought and desertification. The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought is an annual event aimed to increase awareness about the difficulties of desertification and drought, supporting sustainable land management practices, and emphasizing

the need to combat these challenges.

Drought is an extended period of unusually dry weather when there is not enough rain. This lack of precipitation can cause a variety of problems including a shortage in water supply, decreased agricultural productivity, and limited access to transportation. These effects can lead to famine, forced migration, and conflict over remaining resources. While droughts were historically natural disasters, increasingly, they are caused by human activities like mismanagement of water resources. Desertification is land degradation that is a result of exploitative activities by humans, like overgrazing, removal of natural forest cover, and agricultural activities in vulnerable arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas, among others. Through desertification, drylands lose their productive capacity, leading to food insecurity, poverty, and increased rates of suicide among farmers and in debt.

While desertification may not be the sole cause of droughts, recent evidence suggests that human-caused desertification is responsible for more droughts in the last couple of decades.

The theme for 2023: Her Land. Her Rights.

Women play a vital role in regulating and procuring water resources in developing countries, but their rights are overlooked in agricultural and human rights policies. In all parts of the world, women face barriers in their daily lives and aspirations for social mobility. As land and water resources are affected, their status as caretakers and providers for families and communities is further undermined. Under the theme “Her Land. Her Rights,” the focus of World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought 2023, is on women’s land rights. The right to inherit or own land is an important aspect of achieving gender equality at a global level. While the land is one of the most critical economic resources for the rural poor, women around the world are less likely to own or control land than men, exposing them to poverty, hunger, gender-based violence and displacement.

Why is the theme relevant to the world in 2023?

Women face the negative consequences of any extreme weather event more intensely due to systemic sexism, and drought and desertification are no exceptions. This sexism is a direct result of generations of women being robbed of their rights and equal status in society. Unless we find a way to address this deeply rooted issue, we are stuck in a cycle with no escape.

In a report released by the UN at the Bonn Climate Change Conference in June 2022, it was found that in areas affected by climate-induced disasters, women were at a higher risk of facing gender-based violence. For example, women and girls in Colombia, Mali and Yemen are particularly at risk of experiencing gender-based violence due to the intersection of climate change impacts, environmental degradation and conflict in these areas. The report also found that women who engage in agricultural practices are often not recognized as farmers because of gender norms. This restricts their access to finance, information and services needed to protect them against climate-related damages like drought.

Policy and society hence fail at protecting women in such disaster struck areas. The theme has significant relevance to the current world scenario, where women are still the underrepresented and marginalised part of our society.

How does policy fail women?

Policy and government have on more occasions than one, failed to protect women and their rights. While women’s right to own property may seem irrelevant to the issue of drought and desertification, inheritance laws play a significant role in perpetuating gender inequity.

In pre-independence India, efforts were made to give widows a share in estate legacies while post-independence India laid down the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 giving the right to inherit property, irrespective of gender, to any person who is Hindu by religion. This law was amended in 2005 to specifically grant sons and daughters equal rights to joint-family property. While among Muslims, a practice allows the sons twice the share of their inheritance with a promise to provide for their sisters when the need arises. In either case, the implementation of these laws and practices is not consistent and the will of the deceased trumps law. Many disputes usually arise due to ancestral assets, but not all matters go to court. However, if the matters go to court, the social dynamics within a family (which are strongly influenced by the patriarchy) prevent women from ever getting their fair share.

In Ethiopia, Africa, the Revised Family Code of 2000 gives equal rights to women and men in the context of marriage, inheritance and property. Despite the law, very few women know of their right to equity in this state. Evidence from Kenya, suggests that women belonging to certain communities do not know of the laws and provisions that support their property right. Another example of the government’s failure to implement laws is in Lamu, Kenya, where women and girls inherit only a third of their father’s land while men receive half of the same, yet the country’s law states that all direct descendants of the deceased have equal access to land. While these are only a few examples, giving women equitable land rights plays a vital role in climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. With women accounting for over 43% of the global agricultural workforce, their empowerment can yield remarkable results. A UN report suggests that when provided with the same resource access as men, it can help reduce the world's hunger from 17% to 12%.

Prema Gopalan was an Indian activist and advocate for feminist agriculture. Prema’s legacy is an excellent example of how women can bridge the gap between sustainability and self-ownership. She helped thousands of women self organise and sustain permaculture and sustainable farming through crop rotation and water management. When a devastating earthquake destroyed the district of Latur in Maharashtra, she mobilised the power of the community of women, to reconstruct what was left of the district. This community-driven restoration project resulted in the creation of a network of women that assist in capacity and resilience building in disaster struck areas.


Ananda, Grace A., Moseti, Bernard, Mugehera, Leah. 2020. Women’s Land Rights Scorecard: The Failure of land policy and legal reforms in securing women’s land rights in Africa. Oxfam. 10.21201/2020.6904.

Desertification and Drought Day 2023 sets an ambitious women's land rights agenda , 20 March 2023, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

Drought and Climate Change, Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions

Gender and Land Rights Database,

New Report: Why Climate Change Impacts Women Differently Than Men, 10 June 2022, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Prema Gopalan remembered. (n.d.). International Institute for Environment and Development.

Understanding Droughts, National Geographic

Women Bear the Brunt of Drought Shocks. May 10, 2022, Scientific American

Women’s empowerment is about land ownership, 18 August 2022, LiveMint

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