Gender and Climate Change

Session Report
Aasthaba Jadeja

Understanding the Nuances of Climate Change in the Indian Subcontinent: Impact and Way Forward is an Online International Monsoon School Program, a Six-Week Immersive Online Introductory Certificate Training Course from August-September 2023 by IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute. An informative and interactive panel discussion on “Gender and Climate Change” was held on the 5th of August 2023 by Prof. Vibhuti Patel, Visiting Distinguished Professor, IMPRI; Vice-President, Indian Association of Women Studies (IAWS)

Prof. Vibhuti Patel started the session by explaining the role of women as one of the most important stakeholders in climate change. In numerous developing nations, women bear significant responsibilities related to environmentally sensitive tasks, such as ensuring the availability of food, water, and energy for their households. However, the consequences of climate change—manifested through phenomena like droughts, floods, coastal erosion, rising sea levels, and increasing temperatures—place even more substantial burdens on women. These environmental shifts also have adverse effects on households, particularly concerning food security, which, if compromised, can lead to scarcity and deprivation, potentially fueling domestic violence. Women are additionally tasked with procuring water and managing various household chores. 

Economist Indira Rajaraman, affiliated with the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, highlighted the time women in India invest in collecting water. On average, Indian women spend 6.2 years of their lives engaged in this task. Had accessible tap water been available, this time could have been channelled toward self-development and education, ultimately enhancing their standard of living. The effects of climate change extend to clean energy availability, especially in tribal regions, and impact the accessibility of fodder for livestock. 

Learning from Historical Struggles 

In the 1970s, the Himalayas witnessed the pioneering efforts of women from Tehri Garhwal, who vehemently opposed the construction of a dam and thermal plant. These women contended that these projects would only contribute to the destruction of the surrounding biodiversity. This marked the emergence of the “chipko movement,” a precursor to many subsequent environmental activism initiatives. 

Illegal logging activities by a timber mafia further exacerbated environmental degradation, contributing to the erosion of forest covers. Local women were deprived of their customary access to forest resources, a practice that had been in place for centuries. Attempts by women to gather wood from these forests were met with criminalization, exposing them to various forms of atrocities. 

The timber mafias also engaged in alcohol trading, supplying workers with alcohol that often led to domestic violence against women. In dire financial straits, local men were forced to sell their daughters to these mafias to settle their debts. As a result, women in these families endured immense stress and subjugation, leading to increased suicide rates and giving rise to the ‘chipko’ movement. 

Global Environmental Awareness 

Vandana Shiva, a scientist, conducted in-depth research on the relationship between women and natural resources. She authored the book “Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development,” offering valuable insights into this dynamic. The United Nations’ declaration of the 1970s as the “women’s decade” catalyzed an increase in environmental awareness. This period witnessed numerous conferences at local, national, and international levels, where experts exchanged ideas regarding environmental protection and rejuvenation. 

Global Movements and Local Impact 

Latin American countries experienced a surge of movements advocating for the protection of the Amazon Rainforest. These movements also shed light on the profit-centric interests of Western countries, often at the expense of environmental conservation. Similarly, the Fiji Islands faced the detrimental consequences of nuclear testing, leading to widespread health issues due to radiation exposure. Protests erupted as inhabitants suffered from diseases, including cancer, attributed to the consumption of radiation-affected fish. 

Additionally, one notable instance that underscored the urgency of environmental awareness was the movement that arose in Japan against a company releasing mercury-contaminated effluents into the nearby sea. This discharge of toxic waste led to a drastic decline in fish populations in the vicinity and inflicted mercury poisoning on the local populace. This incident not only highlighted the detrimental consequences of environmental degradation but also galvanized public opposition against environmentally harmful practices. Such incidents further underscored the critical need for comprehensive environmental regulations and ethical responsibility in industries to ensure the well-being of both ecosystems and human populations.

Inequities and Vulnerabilities Based on Gender

The impact of climate change extends far beyond environmental alterations, as it intersects with existing gender inequalities to disproportionately affect women. Women often find themselves in vulnerable positions due to societal norms, limited access to resources, and their roles as primary caregivers and providers of food, water, and energy within households. As climate-related disasters become more frequent and severe, these existing gender inequities are exacerbated. Women’s increased vulnerability to such events can be attributed to factors such as limited access to education, economic resources, and decision-making power.

A significant barrier to realizing the full potential of women’s contributions lies in their underrepresentation in decision-making processes related to climate change. The lack of gender diversity in key institutions and forums means that policies and strategies are often developed without fully considering women’s unique experiences, needs, and perspectives. This exclusion perpetuates a cycle of inequality, limiting women’s ability to influence solutions that directly impact their lives. 

Empowering Women in Policy Making 

Women’s active participation in policy-making processes, particularly concerning essential subjects like fuel, fodder, water, and livestock raising, is imperative. Regrettably, key international climate change agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the UNFCCC have not adequately addressed the gendered impacts of climate change. Furthermore, gender disparities persist within key decision-making institutions focused on climate change. 

Recognizing the importance of amplifying women’s voices, their expressed desires include creating platforms for women farmers, community workers, students, and youth to address climate change concerns. These desires encompass documenting best practices, organizing study tours and exposure programs related to climate change projects, and facilitating workshops on disaster management. 

Education and Vulnerability 

Women bear the brunt of climate-related disasters, which escalate their workloads and hinder their opportunities. Studies indicate that Indian women born during droughts or floods in the 1970s were 19% less likely to attend primary school. With the intensification of climate change, India’s poorest women and girls are at risk of being excluded from equitable development opportunities. Many poor women are involved in climate-sensitive activities like paddy farming. 

Despite contributing the least to climate change, the poorest population is most vulnerable to its consequences. Women, constituting a significant portion of the agricultural workforce, experience the harshest impacts. As women play a vital role in producing over 50% of the world’s food, their involvement in agricultural activities in India makes them particularly susceptible to climate change’s effects. 

Gendered Impact on Livelihoods 

The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events driven by climate change lead to natural disasters that can lower the life expectancy of women. Climate change has eroded women’s capacity to adapt to their environment, jeopardizing the resilience of entire communities. The scarcity of natural resources, such as forests and arable land, compounds women’s workload and stress. 

Implications of Gender Discrimination: 

In regions like India, women experience the detrimental effects of climate change through crop yield reduction and diminished crop quality. This impact is compounded by gender discrimination, affecting women’s health and well-being. Climate change has heightened livelihood challenges, deepened food insecurity, and triggered mass migrations.  

Women possess valuable knowledge and capabilities that can contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation. However, limited economic freedom, restricted property and inheritance rights, and inadequate access to financial resources, education, technology, and equipment constrain their efforts. Gender inequities in policy and decision-making spheres further undermine their potential contributions. 

Empowerment through Grassroots Movements

The chipko movement, spearheaded by women from Rene village in Chamoli district, and the efforts of Bhil tribal women in Madhya Pradesh’s Sondwa block, underscore the power of women’s activism in environmental protection. With men seeking urban livelihoods, women increasingly participate in low-paying agricultural jobs, previously unavailable to them. 

Harnessing Knowledge and Research 

To manage natural resources more effectively, it’s imperative to consolidate local knowledge and recent advancements in agriculture and environmental research. Sharing insights gained from these sources plays a pivotal role in better resource management. 

In conclusion, women’s central roles in securing essential resources make them crucial contributors to climate-resilient communities. Recognizing and addressing the gendered impacts of climate change are essential steps toward creating a sustainable and equitable future amid the challenges posed by environmental transformations.

Acknowledgement: Aasthaba Jadeja is a research intern at IMPRI.

Read more event reports of IMPRI here

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  • Nikita Bhardwaj