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Explained: How climate change is reducing women’s agency in Asian, African settings

Climate change has led to erratic weather behaviour and altered the nature of soil and water, making occupations like farming less sustainable.

Written by Yashee | New Delhi | Updated: November 29, 2019 8:55:20 am
Membership of self-help groups often acts positively for women, but their gains are limited by the social context, says the study. (Archive/For representation)

Climate change is taking an especially high toll on women from weak socio-economic backgrounds, a new study published this week shows.

Research led by the University of East Anglia in England used 25 case studies across three “climate change hotspots” in Africa and Asia to conclude that environmental degradation is reducing further the ability of women to make choices and take decisions that can impact their lives positively, including in adapting to climate change.

The Asian “hotspots” were in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Tajikistan, while the African ones were in Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, Mali, Ethiopia, and Senegal. The study, involving researchers from India, Nepal, Pakistan, South Africa, and the UK, was published in Nature Climate Change on November 25. (‘A qualitative comparative analysis of women’s agency and adaptive capacity in climate change hotspots in Asia and Africa’: Nitya Rao and others)

Of the 25 case studies, 14 were in semi-arid regions, six in mountains and glacier-fed river basins, and five in deltas. These areas face a range of environmental risks such as droughts, floods, rainfall variability, land erosion and landslides, and glacial lake outburst floods. The predominant livelihoods include agriculture, livestock pastoralism, and fishing, supplemented by wage labour, petty trade, and income from remittances.

‘Feminisation’ of agriculture

Climate change has led to erratic weather behaviour and altered the nature of soil and water, making occupations like farming less sustainable. As men migrate in search of better work, and since farming can’t be totally abandoned, the women stay back, putting in extra labour into an activity that is no longer that productive economically.

They do this in addition to their duties of looking after the household and their families, with no male partner to help them — at the cost of compromising with their health, nutrition, and leisure time, which adversely impacts various aspects of their well-being.

And yet, the study says, the women have little control over how the money they earn is spent, or over what kind of crop is planted on the farm. In semi-arid Kenya, for example, when men move away with livestock in search of better pastures, women lose “control over milk for consumption and sale, and have to work harder to provide nutritious food to their children”.

Also read | Why we may be losing the fight against climate change

Earning, but it’s not helping

With the men gone, more women are entering the workforce. But their income is going into ensuring basic survival, and not helping their ability to take significant decisions, and to adapt to climate change.

“Household poverty and environmental stress seem to combine to suppress women’s agency even when favourable household norms are leading to improved participation of women in the workforce and voice in household decision-making,” the study says.

Kenyan women are working to supplement household income, but in risky jobs such as narcotics trade and sex work. In Mali and Ghana, women work on arid land that is often borrowed, without putting in investment that would make it sufficiently productive, and their labour more worthwhile.

Institutions failing women

While more women are working in farms, farmer associations and markets are controlled by men. In natural disasters, aid-distribution and local governance units are dominated by men, and women have to rely on male relatives. In India, the study says, several rural local body posts are reserved for women, but their decisions are largely driven by men.

In Ghana, the researchers say, state interventions “seemed to impede both the traditional cohesion within communities and women’s ability to diversify into more lucrative livelihoods. Focusing on cash crops, and providing formal extension services, typically controlled by men, they strengthened cultural norms that excluded women.”

In the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta in Bangladesh, state interventions in terms of planned relocation “negatively impacted women’s agency”, with available jobs, such as those in export processing zones, being preferentially accessed by men.

Women self-help groups (SHGs) “are often limited in number and lack the needed capacity, skills and opportunities to be effective and sustainable, especially where individual women and groups are dependent on natural resource systems for livelihood…”, the researchers say.

“Though membership of an SHG often acts positively for women’s agency, it does not necessarily translate into decision-making authority outside the SHGs and within their homes. This (suggests)… that women’s agency in one institutional site may not necessarily transfer uncontested to another — it is contextual and socially embedded.”

However, the study says some government measures, such as the public distribution system (PDS) for foodgrains in India, or pensions and social grants in Namibia, do grant women more agency, by taking care of basic survival and giving them more spending power.

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