Mainstreaming gender to fight against climate change

By Abhimanyu Shrivastava

Last year we marked the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, which is aimed at advocating gender equality and building a more inclusive world. The Beijing Platform Action remains the most significant policy framework till date which talks about protecting and nurturing the women rights.

Today, the road to achieve a more equal life for women and girls in different spheres has become tough. From global terrorism to climate change, efforts to build a women centric society and system are being challenged. The situation is even more alarming in developing economies like India. Planning mechanisms are often ignoring the underlying gendered complexities which affect the outcome of each and every policy initiative.

On a pressing issue like climate change, we are ignoring the very basic nuances of gender justice. It is time we talk about how climate change is widening the gender gap and affecting women rights at large.

Climate change is a planetary phenomenon that will impact all countries, but its effects are being shaped by pervasive and entrenched gender inequality. Heatwaves, droughts, rising sea levels, and cyclonic storms and other forms of extreme weather events are disproportionately affecting women.  Numerous examples are available from all across the globe, highlighting how climate change impacts women and men differently, particularly in the global south.

In the aftermath of disasters, women are more likely to be displaced than men. The same goes for the cases of sexual assault, violence and other heinous human rights violations. In many regions, women are more likely than men to conclude formal education early, making them less informed about climate change and less likely to be involved in decision making, affecting their vulnerability.

Women are also more affected by drought and water shortages, often bearing the burden of spending significant time traveling to distant water resources and returning back to home. The scenario is even more alarming for girl children. They are provided with less food as compared to boys during times of food scarcity. This makes them more susceptible to malnutrition and diseases, particularly vector-borne diseases that have become more prevalent due to climate change.

However, women are not more vulnerable to climate impacts simply because of their gender but for a range of factors. Characteristics such as age, levels of poverty, ethnicity and marginalization in combination with gender intersect results in higher vulnerability. Going deeper, one can understand that there are complicated power dynamics and socioeconomic factors at play that cause climate impacts to be felt differently among men and women.

Societal norms have played a key role in limiting the livelihood options for women who depend on natural resources. For instance, in East Africa, drought has pushed pastoral farmers to travel long distances to find water. While women would normally be part of these groups earlier, the increasing distances have resulted in the exclusion of women in the present times. The logic is that they must be able to return home in order to take care of family members. This exclusion negatively affects the financial income of women as well as the food security of households and the community at large.

While men are able to migrate to find work elsewhere with higher wages, women are not able to relocate due to family caretaking commitments. Women are thus obligated to work for lower wages due to their family responsibilities, resulting in income insecurity and inequality. The expectation on women to provide family care has created uneven effects during times of disaster.

In Indonesia, the 2004 tsunami claimed women live four times more than men. Women spent more time trying to save their children, which slowed down their efforts to flee the tsunami. It is a sobering example of how one-sided family responsibilities can have dire implications for women and society.

The growing recognition of climate change induced inequalities for women has resulted in concentrated efforts to take gender into account when coping with its effects. Reports from the March 2019 UN Assembly in Nairobi call for immediate climate action planning to advance our work over the next three to five years, and emphasize the importance of including women in this process, especially women in political leadership.

Although there are global demands for more women to participate in climate change action and planning, the lack of evidence and even uniform frameworks makes it difficult to determine whether we are on track to achieve this aim or not. It is imperative to establish a baseline for SDG change at the earliest, and for this, we need to improve the quality and the types of data we collect on gender and climate change.

Despite the inequalities and challenges faced by women contending with the effects of climate change, there are several examples of how women-led climate change planning and adaptation efforts are making a difference at the grassroots.

An initiative in northeastern Kenya uses community-driven photo stories to encourage women to speak up about climate change — specifically on the issue of drought which affects their community deeply. These women belong to pastoralist Muslim families and are not traditionally encouraged to speak up. Through community discussions and the creation of short videos, these women were able to share their experiences and strategies to survive long periods of drought. The male members of this community are now learning from their videos to better understand the issues and adaptation strategies of climate change.

In the Indian state of Odisha, women collectives or self-help groups (SHGs) have come together to generate solutions to ensure potable drinking water, in the face of increased salinity in local groundwater due to the rise in seawater levels and decreasing monsoon.

In Fiji, women groups are leading adaptation measures at the community scale, improving the resilience of the market vendors against cyclones, floods and drought.

All these examples highlight one key learning on climate change adaptability – mainstreaming women in decision making. Their inclusion at various levels of governance can help in deploying resilient strategies for mitigating the looming threat of climate change, not only on us but also on our future generations.

Moving forward, it is critical that all climate action takes a meaningful gender-responsive approach. Our efforts must move beyond the step of ensuring equal women and men members on discussion panels. We must ensure that we address underlying structural power relations and socio-economic marginalization that lead to women around the world being more significantly affected by climate change.

(The writer is a Research Associate at Pranab Mukherjee Foundation, New Delhi) 

The Analysis (TA) is a research and communication group | Analyzing Law, Policy and Political Affairs of India. Write to us at contact@theanalysis.org.in

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