The ability of women to withstand climate shocks is much lower than that of men. But a gradual change is on the horizon
The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, (UNFCCC) — which draws to a close November 12 — briefly turned its focus on those who pay a bigger price when a disaster strikes.
Climate change — a ubiquitous planetary phenomenon that impacts every person in every country — impacts women and girls more. They are vulnerable to domestic violence, sexual and economic exploitation, unemployment, and other issues.
They are less able to withstand climate shocks than their male counterparts. It is not an even playing field as it is all too often.
Down to EarthWe spoke to two women experts to learn more about how climate change impacts women in India, particularly in agriculture. According to OXFAM India, nearly 75% of Indian farmers are women.
Veena Poonacha is former director at Research Centre for Women’s Studies, New Delhi. Nitya Rao, professor of gender and international development, School of International Development at University of East Anglia.
Here are some edited excerpts:
Anshika Ravi India has been affected by a number of climate change-related disasters this year as well as last. How are women in India — in rural and urban areas impacted by the crisis?
Veena Poonacha:There is no doubt about the gendered nature of the climate crisis’s impact. The Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal Department of Women and Child Development Government of Maharashtra commissioned me to evaluate a self-help group program that was created after the 1993 earthquake in Latur, Maharashtra.
Women were the most affected of the 20,000 deaths and 30,000 injuries and displacements. This is because the night of the terrible event, men were sleeping outside of their homes. [so they survived], but women were inside homes built with granite stones.
After the tragedy, men (even those who had lost families) were able rebuild their lives and start new families with a second partner. Women were left homeless and vulnerable to sexual and economic exploitation.
Nitya Rao: Women care for family and put food on the table. Men, however, move to other parts of the nation for non-farm employment.
Women end up eating less and borrowing money from moneylenders when crops are damaged or delayed by migrant men. They may end up selling their gold jewellery and taking on low-paid, part-rated, home-based jobs. All this is in addition to managing household farms or domestic work.
The layers of suffering are many. What about their freedom, health, and employment?
VP: Another dimension is abandonment. Men leave their families in search for better economic options. Women who are abandoned are left to care for their children, their elderly parents, and themselves.
This is not only true in the case of environmental destruction; women also pay a higher price for environmental degradation than men. Women’s household work includes ensuring water, fuel and fodder for their families.
I found, while studying the efficacy of self-help groups in uplifting women out of poverty through micro-finance and up-scaling of their vocational skills, that it is not possible to improve women’s status in their family without concurrently reducing their household drudgery. Only if we are able to regenerate the earth can this be achieved.
It is possible to draw a connection between urban-rural migration. During my fieldwork in Mumbai slums I discovered that many people living under terrible conditions have been forced to leave their homelands due to environmental destruction.
However, vulnerable communities don’t always migrate to cities because they are attracted to them; they do so because of the threat of crop damage and depleting farm production due to climate change.
An analysis of floods and landslides in Kodagu District of Karnataka revealed widespread destruction to coffee plantations and paddy fields. This year, the continuous rains and thunderstorms also had a devastating effect on agriculture.
The decline in horticulture production and the destruction of paddy fields has led to a drop in agricultural production. Families will feel the brunt the violence as farmers are forced to leave their farms and move elsewhere. Women are more likely to suffer the consequences of financial stress in families. Some daughters are forced to leave school, marry young, or sold to sex workers.
NR: Work for women does intensify when a calamity strikes, and with possibly reducing consumption, which has negative effects on women’s health.
For example, women formed self-help groups to support one another during severe cyclones in Sunderbans. Women end up working in the red light district in Kolkata sex-work because there is not much employment.
As women struggle to feed their children and find food, the rise in girl child maritals is also due to climate-induced catastrophes.
There have been cases of women empowerment in agriculture production. How has this resulted in increased diversification of the use farmland in India
VP: I understood the importance of empowering women in agriculture its impact on the diversification of farm land-use a few years ago. There is a marked difference between how men and women view agriculture.
Science is a path to advancement for male agriculture scientists. They are more likely than women to conduct research on genetic modification of crops or create hybrid crops, but they are more likely for women scientists to be involved in community outreach programs or to find local solutions to agricultural problems.
Subsistence agriculture is a more common activity for women in agriculture than cash crops. It is therefore more likely to encourage crop diversification if women are empowered in agriculture. Women are often left out of work when land use shifts from food crops towards cash crops.
I am not referring here to landless migrant workers who have few choices, but communities that own land. Women are forced to work in domestic jobs when food crops are not being produced. Unequal access to resources is created by bringing agriculture into a cash economy.
This is because women are dependent on men who control money. Resources are more easily distributed in a subsistence economy.
NR: An interesting example at scale is the Andhra Pradesh community-based Natural Farming, which has as its entry point women’s self-help groups (SHG).
Men tend to migrate, especially among Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe group members and in drought-prone regions of Andhra. As land managers, women strive to find a balance between food to consume (subsistence), and food to sell to make some income to meet other requirements (purchase of oil or spices, transport, education).
This programme has worked with women’s groups, enabling interaction between agriculture graduates and women (and some men) farmers to develop best practices for managing their land to yield both food and income.
They practice multi-layer agriculture with pulses, grains, and tree crops. They also grow vegetables on small plots.
How do you see women’s participation in local community efforts to mitigate climate change impacts?
VP: Many such examples can be found in different parts of India. MAVIM is an SHG that organizes women in Maharashtra to participate in panni panchayatsTo regenerate water bodies and to build bunds to conserve water.
Women’s participation in such activities has two-fold advantages: It helps to reduce their household drudgery of carrying water to their houses and also ensures that the community views them as equal participants in the creation of water security.
NR: Rural India’s agricultural workers now include more than half of the country’s women. They also engage in urban and rural farming. We found many middle-class women in urban areas who were interested in gardening, especially during COVID-19. Many hostels, homes for the elderly, and other community institutions also took up farming.
This can have positive effects on urban vegetation, contributing to a slower rise of temperatures, and also mitigation by reducing energy usage. transportation of perishables from the rural to the urban.
A comprehensive approach to managing crop choices, water and pests can help to mitigate in rural areas, where women work together to share information and knowledge even though they may be working on their private lands.
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