Women play a critical role in natural resources management within their households. In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), 8 in 10 women are responsible for collecting water for their household. Women are responsible for over 70% of water-related chores and management globally. In India alone, women make up over 65% of the agricultural workforce.
There is global consensus that women are integral to climate change dialogue, not just because of their role and dependence on natural resources, but also because of their disproportionate vulnerability to climate change threats. Yet, there is a paucity of data documenting, as we said, women’s roles and engagement in climate change adaptation. We could identify no single standard measure focused on these issues. Global indicators on women and climate change action are lacking.
However, the 4th Session of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March 2019, attended by all 193 UN Member states, offers hope for greater engagement of women in climate action planning and monitoring of their impact. A resolution adopted at this Assembly not only acknowledged the disproportionate burden of climate change on women and girls but also emphasised the “power of their knowledge and collective action”, the need to encourage women’s participation and leadership in environmental-decision making–from the local to the international levels–and “to support training and capacity building efforts on gender mainstreaming and to ensure meaningful participation in global processes”.
The resolution also requests the collection of data on gender equality and empowerment to assess progress on environmental policies and programmes.
Human activities have already caused warming of 1.0 degree Celsius as compared to pre-industrial times, according to the latest report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). By 2030, or latest by mid-century, global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Thus far, with a 1°C rise in global temperatures, India has already experienced extreme weather events such as floods in Kerala, wildfires in Uttarakhand and heat waves in the north and the east, demonstrating its vulnerability.
Women, particularly those connected to agriculture and fishery, may be particularly vulnerable.
While women are more likely than men to notice the climate change impacts on agricultural productivity, livestock problems and water availability, they are less likely than men to receive key information on climate and agricultural information that would allow them to plan for climate concerns, October 2015 research from Rakai, Uganda has found.
A second study from Uganda, released in May 2018, highlights the link between climate change and women’s risk for abuse: Financial stresses due to crop failure and resultant loss in household income increase marital stress, and can result in spousal violence against women. It can also result in economic abuse of women, as men often want to sell the crops the women have grown in the dry seasons, without engaging their wives on the decision.
Natural disasters as a consequence of climate change also create greater risk for women. In the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand, more women than men died because they had stayed back to look for children and relatives as per their gender roles, and because they did not know how to swim and climb trees like the men and boys did.
Natural disasters, which are expected to increase due to climate change, also render women and girls vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation, particularly in contexts of pre-existing economically vulnerability. Subsequent to the 2016 hurricane in Haiti, cases of sex trafficking of girls increased, as economic deprivation rapidly rose in the region. Following the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, early marriage of girls increased, due to concerns regarding the vulnerability of orphaned girls.
Lack of gendered data–and targets–on climate change
The scale and scope of women’s burden related to climate change is not well understood due to inadequate data. The UN Minimum Set of Gender Indicators has no measures on gender equality and climate.
As part of broader efforts of the EMERGE Project, created to identify and share measures of gender equality and empowerment across issues of development and health, we looked specifically at measures on these issues as related to climate change action. We found none.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13 calls for “urgent action to combat climate change and its impact”, and makes specific reference to strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity. Existing SDG 13 indicators focus on weather-based and geological indicators such as global temperatures, precipitation, carbon dioxide emissions, energy consumption, land use and others.
However, these measures lack a gender equality perspective. There are no gender-sensitive targets or indicators for SDG13.
Related SDGs, #6 on water and sanitation, #7 on energy, #14 on life below water and #15 on life on land, contribute to the climate change dialogue, but also lack gender-sensitive indicators.
There is one indicator, within SDG 5 (gender equality), that furthers this dialogue by including measurement of land ownership among the agricultural population by gender. While this helps understand ownership patterns, but land ownership is not by itself a means of measuring women’s engagement in climate change planning efforts, although it can provide some insight into the issue.
The solution: Women as agents of change
Reports from the March 2019 Asembly in Nairobi call for immediate climate action planning to advance our work over the next three to five years, and highlight the need to engage women in this process–particularly, the importance of women in political leadership to help advance change.
While there are global calls for greater engagement of women and issues of gender equality in climate change action planning, the absence of data or even standard measures mean it is difficult to assess if we are on a path to achieving this goal. It is imperative 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.
Guidance from the Assembly is consistent with growing evidence regarding women’s value in climate action planning. Women are described simultaneously as “shock absorbers” and “agents of change” for climate change adaptation.
Despite the inequalities and challenges faced by women contending with the effects of climate change, there are several examples of women-led climate change planning and adaptation efforts.
Another programme in northeastern Kenya used community-driven photo stories to encourage women to speak up about climate change–specifically on the drought affecting their community. The 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 wanted to see these videos to better understand the issues and adaptation strategies of climate change.
Closer home, in Bhadrak, Orissa, women’s 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 a rise in sea water levels and decreasing monsoon, as IndiaSpend reported in February 2019. Women are adversely affected as their time and distance traveled to collect water increases, and they are concerned about the health consequences for themselves and their children. SHGs also provide a platform for women to discuss flooding and associated women-specific concerns such as the lack of privacy during menstruation and sanitation.
Other efforts are isolated experiments, such as in the case of the Nahi community in West Bengal, India. The Nahi women started to place their chicken coops over ponds. The women realised that the chicken faeces that fell into the pond can act as fish feed, and result in larger fish. This method has yielded great economic benefit to these women and their families, and helped maintain or improve livelihoods.
These programs highlight the value and capacities women’s engagement in climate change action can bring. National and global indicators are needed to better capture these efforts and promote women’s inclusion in the climate adaptation planning agenda.
(Namratha Rao is a New Delhi-based Research Coordinator with the Center on Gender Equity and Health at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Anita Raj is a Tata Chancellor Professor of Society and Health, Professor of Medicine and Education Studies, and Director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health at UCSD.)
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