As global temperatures continue to rise at unprecedented levels due to climate change, problems around food security and access to water are increasing as well. All the impacts of a changing climate – drought, floods, superstorms, hailstorms, hurricanes, glacier melt, heatwaves and extreme cold1 – are making life support systems more unstable. It’s a certainty that no-one on the planet will completely escape these effects. However, we are not all impacted in the same way. How we are affected depends on who we are, where we’re from, where we live and other related factors. Here we explore how women are affected.

Climate change research and work in Bolivia is concentrated on rural areas and rarely focuses specifically on how it effects women's lives. Women have less impact on the environment, however they are being disproportionately affected by climate change. And all the more in a country like Bolivia where women, in both urban and rural areas, daily provide the basic needs of life: food, healthcare, child-rearing and various caring duties, amongst other roles2. Across the world three-quarters of the work women do is unpaid; this contrasts with men’s work, of which three quarters is paid3.

“Every day, before work, I make breakfast for the children, I sweep the house, some mornings I cook food for the dogs, sometimes I clean, I feed the rabbits, this time goes fast...” – Interview with Isabel Ugarte Huanale, cook for the School Support Program in Community María Auxiliadora, Singinvani, March 2014 Photo by: Carey Averbook Ι Isabel: Now I have almost everything

It is not the same thing to experience climate change impacts when you have a permanent income that allows you to buy things like organic food or gives you the chance to move to a better home when there’s a disaster as it is when you live in a rented adobe house and have nowhere to go, except possibly a tent, and with your children sick and your family depending on food aid to survive.

“Our children are getting diarrhea, they have skin infections, and the mosquitoes are biting a lot...All of the [waste contamination] that comes from the arrives here, the river doesn’t carry it away and it ends up on the streets and in the houses.”– Interview with a mother affected by the Quillacollo floods, 21 February 2011

Following a disaster “women are usually those who stay put, not due to lack of initiative or traditional restraints, but because they are those who have been made to feel most responsible for the reproduction of their families. They are the ones who have to make sure that the children have food, often themselves going without it, and who make sure that the elderly or the sick are cared for.” (Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero4)

The example of the women-led 'Community María Auxiliadora' in Cochabamba offers many lessons and much inspiration on how to build alternatives that not only respond to climate change but also to the violence that most women in these contexts experience. The community was initially set up by five women in the Zona Sur (South Zone) of Cochabamba, where a large part of the population lives at the margin of the opportunities they came in search of. The women founders saw in the collective model of sustainable living an alternative to the commercialization of land, the crisis of our economic model, and the violence that women experience.

Climate Change and Social Injustices

A United Nations report warned that climate change is making vulnerable communities experience worse poverty and hunger and have less resources to dedicate to their children, and in the end migration seems like the only way out5. These impacts especially affect women, as they make up 70%6 of the 1.3 billion suffering absolute poverty7 in the world.

Most people migrate to urban areas. During the 20th century the world became rapidly urbanized, and by 2030 it is expected that 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. Urbanization will be more acute in impoverished areas of the world8.

Climate Change Impacts in Bolivia

Climate change impacts, and how people deal with them, differ of course between the global North and South. Bolivia, like many “under-developed” countries, has low carbon emissions (0.03 – 0.04%), yet is one of the most vulnerable to and most affected by climate change9. This does not take away from the fact that all countries need to take action on climate change mitigation in accordance with our emissions levels.

Due to its geography and because it is in one of the world's tropical mountain regions Bolivia is finding itself impacted harder and faster by climate change10. It is estimated that by 2100 Bolivia and Brazil will experience the highest temperature increase in the region11, which will influence water levels in the soil and conditions for agriculture. Bolivia is exposed to five principal climate impacts: a decrease in food security; glacier melt which is affecting water access; more frequent and intense ‘natural’ disasters; an increase in mosquito-borne diseases, and more forest fires12.

Climate Change Impacts in Cochabamba

Cochabamba has always been considered as the province of Bolivia with the highest agricultural production, and as a food basket for the rest of the country. Now production has decreased to such an extent that it has opened the door to Peruvian and Chilean imports. Recent climate impacts in the province, such as flooding, drought and unexpected frost, led to 60% of 25,883 hectares of farmland either suffering complete loss of crops or severe damage13. As a consequence of these impacts Cochabamba’s typically fertile lands are now different: desertification and drought have worn out the soil, and farmers are now migrating to the city in search of better opportunities14.

“In Pasorapa there isn’t even water for human consumption, which has caused a massive migration to the cities and abroad. Every day, our cattle and sheep get sick and die, and we are losing 100% of our fields of corn, potatoes and other crops.”– Interview with Eliseo Barriga, Town Councillor in Pasorapa Municipality, Pasorapa, 2010

Social Exclusion, Gender and Climate Change

The dangers associated with the climate affect poor people directly by impacting on their means of survival - such as crop losses or the destruction of their homes - and indirectly through, for example, higher food prices and food insecurity. For those people [poor women], the effects will be catastrophic unless emissions reduce15.(Translated quote from Matt Smith and Brandon Miller, CNN: 'Los 10 países en mayor riesgo por el cambio climatico')

The severity of climate change impacts varies depending on where we are born (geographic vulnerability), who we are (gender), our social class, our ethnic origin, where we live and the dynamics of oppression or violence in which we exist. This is why it is impossible to speak of women in general, because in spite of sharing commonalities as women there are many aspects of women’s realities that produce differences at the moment when we challenge violence or oppression in our lives. It is not the same being a professional, middle-class white woman with a permanent income and a home in the city center, with constant access to basic services and public transport, as it is being a migrant woman from an under-resourced rural area who works as a vendor in the 'Cancha' (market) and lives in the outskirts of the city where public transport is scarce and often more expensive. Doña Isabel, who works as a cook in the school support program of the María Auxiliadora community, illustrates this point:

“Living as a tenant is very difficult. You’re in a tiny room - that’s where you eat and sleep. The children can’t go out and play, it’s uncomfortable, and the landlady is quick to ask you for the rent, payments for the water, the electricity; there’s a lot to pay.”
Another research gap in relation to climate change is its impact on peri-urban areas, which in Cochabamba means the Zona Sur - where 44% of the total urban population lives. In spite of these population numbers it is these areas that are socially and economically excluded, and where a large number of people will soon have to deal with climate change impacts directly or indirectly, on top of their existing challenges.Photo by: Leny Olivera Ι When the Rains Fall: Impacts on a Vulnerable Population
“People in the suburbs live, organize themselves, build their houses, streets and schools, deal with their hardships, and die on the margin of the State.”16(Nelson Antequera Duran)

There is a tendency to see the most vulnerable as victims. However it is in this type of situation, where many people are forced to deal with endless challenges, that as a result they rebel more and organize themselves to solve the conflicts that affect their lives.

Community María Auxiliadora

“Sometimes people say that, right? That the community isn’t worth all this struggle...I say that despite everything it is worth it because here we live better than in other places.”— Interview with María Eugenia Veliz (President of Community María Auxiliadora 2011-2014, Sivingani, July 2014)

This community initiative came about because of the violence women and their children experience. When women don’t have their own homes they are more vulnerable and at a disadvantage when dealing with other forms of violence. What makes this collective experience unique are the principles that have been agreed within the community. Among the most important is that only women can hold the presidency of the community’s leadership, to make sure that the agreed principles are adhered to. The principles hold women’s reality as central to the community, so that they can challenge the conflicts they’ve been through in the past. Some of the principles are listed here:

  • Women’s leadership is important so that they are not excluded in the management of the community.
  • Dwellings cannot be sold, rented or subletted. A dwelling must fulfill a social function and thus cannot sit empty.
  • There is no division or partition in relation to the dwelling when a couple decide to separate. The dwelling stays with the person that will look after the children, most often the woman.
  • Sale of alcohol is prohibited.
  • The community maintains collective vigilance ('social control') with respect to the violence that women and families experience.
  • Everyone must participate in communal work, to get to know each other and ensure co-existence.
  • There must be social control to guarantee 'citizen security'.
  • These principles must be promoted amongst youth and children.

What is women’s work like in the Community?

The work that women from María Auxiliadora do outside the home is of the lowest paid variety. This is on top of the work that they do in the home, which is neither paid nor valued in the society at large. Experiencing climate change impacts in these conditions will create more work for women, and will sharpen the economic crisis which many of them are dealing in spite of having their own home in the community.

All the women work inside and outside the home, and are often single mothers. This is the case of Doña Irene, who lives in the Community with her two daughters: “Before I used to work in whatever I could, I worked helping a woman in a kitchen...I studied to be a hairdresser, but in order for that to work you need your own salon; I used to work for someone that didn’t pay enough and I left. After studying I sought work in hospitals. I didn’t have anywhere to leave my children, so I went to work for a clinic that would let me bring my daughters to work.”Photo by: Carey Averbook Ι Irene: Living peacefully

Many of the women get little sleep, because they have to get up very early to do household chores before going to work. They work more than eight hours outside the home - as in the case of Doña Isabel, who works 10.5 hours a day, and gets up at 4 or 5 every morning.

Others, like Doña María Eugenia, the President of the Community, sleep even less. During the day she is generally occupied with meetings and management tasks, and so ends up working until 4 or 5 in the morning to make pastries to sell in the community school.Photo by: Carey Averbook Ι María Eugenia: I do have worth

The time that women put into reproductive and productive tasks takes up nearly all of their time, but unfortunately not even the work outside of the home is well paid.

What does it mean to be a woman leader in Community María Auxiliadora?

Being a leader in the Community is not the same for a woman as for a man. For the Community it is a principle that women must lead its management, because in general they are excluded from important decisions that affect their lives. But taking on a leadership role means struggling with various things that are in conflict with other aspects of their lives. For example the fact that they have less time available after working eight hours a day and being responsible for household chores. But an even more important factor is the social pressure that women experience from nearly all men - and some women as well - around their role and how women are 'supposed to' behave according to the social norms imposed upon them.

One such norm is that a woman should not be involved in the political sphere, especially if she is a single mother like Doña María Eugenia - who happily managed to separate from a partner who tried to actually kill her: “They shouted at me because I didn’t have a partner, they told me I wasn’t a family woman, that I was on the look-out for men. They insulted me, discriminated against me, even in front of the police a man punched me; he was arrested.”

Speaking of past cases, many women who held leadership positions complained of mistrust from their husbands and a lack of support from their families, who demand a great deal from them: “When the female president works with men who are also part of the management, people accuse her of being their lover...”

Women who challenge this stereotype of wife and mother pay a high price when they become a Community leader, especially if they live with possessive and sexist partners. María Eugenia again:

“He was a selfish person, he wanted help for himself and not for others...He scolded me because I was in a meeting about childcare and someone from a local NGO came, so I got back late at 10pm and the house was locked up...As our neighbor Doña Lucy was building a house there was straw under the stairs, and so I slept there with the dog.”— María Eugenia

Challenging the violence that women experience

The violence in women’s lives in this context is brutal; many of them could have died. But the practice of appointing a commission within the Community to intervene in situations of violence towards women reflects the social and political importance which it places on this injustice.

“I wouldn’t let him light the gas, my son was there...and we fought over the gas bottle, and as I didn’t let go he bit me on my eyebrow, that’s why I don’t have one [eyebrow], he actually ate my flesh...”— María Eugenia

Of course it isn’t easy, and there are still many challenges in dealing with violence towards women in the Community. However there have been cases when it was at least possible to expel violent aggressors from the community, thanks to the principle that calls for no division of the family home after a couple separates.

“It was very difficult to part from him, because he wouldn’t cooperate in anything. He was always just there looking at you. I could be killing myself removing stones from the field, but he would just watch and scold us. Once we fought. I called Doña Bene, the vice-president, and other women came also...another time we started fighting physically, they called the police and they took him away; after that I separated from him.”— (Interview with Irene Cardozo, member of the community María Auxiliadora, Sivingani, June 2014).


Living in a community is not only an effective way of putting brakes on the commercialization of the earth and the home (especially in places where climate change impacts will worsen), and of saving resources in order to live sustainably – recycling water, using compost toilets, growing food, and more. It is also a way of dealing with the violence that women in this context experience.

“Thanks to the encouragement [of the community], I decided to separate from my partner, and the violence towards me has stopped. I feel like thorns have left my body, it is like a rest for me...”Photo by: María Eugenia Veliz Ι María Eugenia: I do have worth

In the Community not only is the land communal, but the work and decision-making as well. This is fundamentally important in facing conflicts or natural disasters, as well as representing a strategy for conserving resources that are only going to become scarcer as climate change impacts worsen. Collective organizing is difficult but it allowed the community to provide basic services for themselves, build communal self-managed spaces, and deal with violence in women’s lives.

In spite of this harsh reality with which many women live - and which worsens along with climate impacts – little or nothing is said about it in most debates and conferences about climate change. Among the few interventions on the issue of gender is the contribution to the manifesto of the 2010 'People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth' from some community feminist groups, which states: “This declaration rejects the idea that the same patriarchal logic that assigns these inequitable gender roles and tasks to maintain society can be used to address climate change.”17

The principal causes (i.e. patriarchy) that create violence against women are inextricably linked to the principal causes of climate change (i.e. capitalism). Addressing climate change with the same patriarchal logic means we risk falling into false solutions that don’t get to the root causes and which worsen the injustices that the poorest communities suffer, and most especially worsen the lives of women.

It is time that all of us, men and women, learn to deal with conflicts, economic and climate crises, and social injustice without oppressing half of humanity (women). A better way of living doesn't only imply living more sustainably – not polluting, conserving resources – but also ensuring that women don't continue to bear such a burden of responsibility for everything, especially that majority which lives in poverty.

The coping capacity that the women of María Auxiliadora display in responding to climate change impacts - as well as to the double or triple violence in their lives related to being women, to having few resources, to their ethnic origin and other factors - reveals an alternative approach that we should pay attention to at this key moment for addressing climate change. But for this to happen it’s important that we rethink what we assume is “normal” in a woman’s role, and change this in practice.

“I think that María Auxiliadora is like David vs Goliath, it’s individualism versus collectivism.”— Rosa Angulo
“Sometimes people say that the community isn’t worth this fight, but I think despite everything it’s worth it because here we live better than in other places.”— María Eugenia Veliz
  1. PRODENA: Propuestas para los Municipios enfrenten al Cambio Climático municipio en
  2. Cambio Climático y Mujer, febrero, 2014:
  3. Victoria Aldunate:"Género" ¿Qué es "Género"? El feminismo no muerde...:
  5. ‘El cambio climático hace más pobres a los pobres,’ Los Tiempos
  6. "Género" ¿Qué es "Género"?: El feminismo no muerde...
  7. Absolute poverty means people don’t have enough food to eat.
  8. Nelson Antequera Duran, Territorios Urbanos, La Paz: Imp. Plural,2007: p.30
  9. Los Tiempos: Bolivia uno de los países que más sufre por el cambio climático, accedido el 19 de septiembre de 2014
  10. Dirk Hoffman, Bolivia en un mundo 4 grados más caliente, accedido el 22 de septiembre de 2014
  11. Los Tiempos: Bolivia uno de los países que más sufre por el cambio climático, accedido el 19 de septiembre de 2014
  12. Oxfam International, "Bolivia Climate change, poverty and adaptation." January 1, 2009
  13. Opinion, Graves daños en los cultivos de Cochabamba, accedido el 3 de octubre2014
  14. Cochabamba atraviesa una etapa crítica en su producción agrícola:
  15. Los 10 países en mayor riesgo por el cambio climatico:
  16. Nelson Antequera Duran, Territorios Urbanos, La Paz: Imp. Plural, 2007
  17. Ana Filippini, Mujeres y Cambio Climático en Cochabamba, 2010: