Climate Change and Gender Inequality

Most of you would be aware about global warming, climate change and how they impact our daily life, other life forms and the Earth. This article will shed light on how global warming disproportionately impacts vulnerable groups like poor and women, especially in developing nations like India.

Despite the concerted efforts of governments and global organizations, climate change continues to worsen.
Image source: Climate Central.

Earth has been going through cycles of heating and cooling since it was formed around 4.5 billion years back. Having attained stability since the last few ice ages, our planet is able to support the various life forms. Since the industrial revolution, and particularly after 1950, the exponential increase in human consumption and emissions has led to an artificial increase in average global temperatures that is leading to disastrous effects like rising sea level, melting glaciers, changing cropping patterns, droughts, etc.

In the case of India, agriculture remains the largest employer even in current times. Around 60% of rural households are engaged in it, despite the low productivity and earnings. Because of distortions caused by the colonial rule, Zamindari system and unintended consequences of government policies, 85% of farmers are small or marginalized, with a land size smaller than 2 hectares. Lack of employment opportunities in the rural areas has led to large scale migration of male members from rural to urban areas over the decades who end up in menial paying and exploitative jobs. The females who are left behind in villages thus take to agriculture over small lands, as a matter of compulsion rather than choice. They might not necessarily be skilled or equipped to substantially increase the production from land and thus remain vulnerable. Some women are employed as shared agriculture labourers by farmers having large lands on a temporary basis, and generally receive less pay than their male counterparts. Even children are compelled to work as hired labour for extra income. This shows the dependence of poor households and women on agriculture.

The image shows how the majority of disasters are induced because of anthropogenic climate change.
Image Source: UN office of Disaster Risk Reduction

With increasing extreme weather events like droughts, floods, changing river courses and rising sea level, those indulged in primary economic activities like gathering, farming, fishing, etc remain extremely vulnerable. The yields of crops have been fluctuating and droughts and floods are occurring in newer areas. They lack the skill and expertise to switch to other job roles. This diminished adaptive capacity makes them even more vulnerable, forcing them to engage in unsustainable environmental practices such as deforestation in order to sustain their well-being. [Women Watch, UN]

Women are affected differently and more severely by climate change and its impacts on agriculture, natural disasters and induced migrations because of social roles, discriminations and poverty. [UNESCO]

Similarly, dress codes imposed on

women can restrict their mobility

in times of disaster, as can their

responsibility for small children

and elderly members who

cannot swim or run.

World Bank

According to UNDP, women collect water, food & fuel for cooking and heating face the greatest challenges. Women experience unequal access to resources and decision-making processes, with limited mobility in rural areas.

Socio-cultural norms can limit women from acquiring the information and skills necessary to escape or avoid hazards (e.g. swimming and climbing trees to escape rising water levels). They generally travel in a limited area, being mostly confined to their homes and fields and thus lack awareness of escape routes/roads in case of disaster. Similarly, dress codes imposed on women can restrict their mobility in times of disaster, as can their responsibility for small children and elderly members who cannot swim or run. [World Bank]

Compared to men, women face huge challenges in accessing all levels of policy and decision-making processes. This renders them less able to influence policies, programmes and decisions that impact their lives. A lack of gender-differentiated data in all sectors (e.g. livelihoods, disasters’ preparedness, protection of the environment, health and well-being) often leads to an underestimation of women’s roles and contributions. This situation can then result in gender-blind climate change policy and programming, which does not take into account their distinct needs, constraints and priorities. Such policies can have the unintended effect of actually increasing gender-based vulnerability. [UNDP]

The solution lies in effective participation of women and poor households in decision and policy making, execution and monitoring. A study by Florida International University found that women in South Asia displayed enormous strength and capacity throughout the entire disaster cycle: preparing for hazards, managing after a disaster and rebuilding damaged livelihoods. Activities included ensuring food and water for the family, taking care of the sick and elderly.

Rural women face additional responsibilities like collecting water and raw material, cooking food, looking after small children and elderly. Image Source: Thomas Reuters Foundation

Women’s greater participation is likely to enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of climate change projects and policies. Steps taken by the Government of India like the reservation for women in MGNREGA, local level elections, etc should be applied at other levels like state and national elections as well. Issue of proxy decision making, wherein husband of the female Sarpanch holds clout in Gram Panchayat, should be resolved by effective and collaborative decision making with adequate representation of the marginalized groups. For example, women tend to be very effective at mobilizing communities in the event of disasters, disaster risk management and have a clear understanding of what strategies are needed at the local level. [Advances in Geo Sciences]

Evidence suggests that women focus more on human and socio-capital indicators like health, education, sanitation, etc while men focus on physical infrastructure like dams, railways, roads, etc. Both are equally required for holistic development, as per the local and national priorities. UBI (Universal Basic Income) pilot projects were carried out in North India by Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), wherein Rs. 300 and Rs. 150 were respectively given to each adult and child member of the families every month. The results yielded better outcome across areas like agriculture, education, health, sanitation, lighting, etc of the households to whom the cash was provided. The families even preferred less dependence on services provided by the state, which are prone to significant leakages. 

Increasing women’s participation

in the workforce to the level of

men can boost the Indian

economy by 27%.

IMF Chief

Women earn between 30 and 80 per cent of what men earn annually. A World Bank survey in 141 countries showed that 103 countries continue to impose legal differences on the basis of gender that may hinder women’s economic opportunities. Various schemes of Government of India that puts the female at the centre like issuing ration card to female head of the family, Ujjwala Yojana for free LPG connection, Matru Vandana Yojana with benefits up to Rs. 6,000 for pregnant and lactating mothers, Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, Stree Shakti, etc aim to address the challenges that women face on a daily basis. The policy is broadly moving in the right direction, with the execution part requiring more attention. 

Active and effective participation of women at all levels of decision making and economy will result in significant holistic growth.
Image Source: World Bank

Gender dividend is the increased economic growth that could be realized with investments in women and girls. A gender dividend can flow from lower fertility rates, which lessen women’s burden of caring for dependents and free up time for other productive activities, notably formal employment. While the demographic dividend comes from having more citizens in the productive ages(15-60), gender dividends come from taking steps that increase the volume of market (paid) work and the level of productivity of the female population. Investments in reproductive health, education, and women’s empowerment can control population increase, contribute to the well-being of girls and women, and lead to increased economic growth. [Population Reference Bureau, PRB] This is witnessed across the Indian states having better HDI indicators like Kerala, Tamil Nadu among others where women empowerment and higher literacy rates correlate with lower population growth rates, in contrast to aspiring states like Bihar, Assam and UP having higher population burden.

UNDP recommends that climate change actions need to be based on consultation with women, build and incorporate their skills and knowledge, and provide opportunities for improving health, education and livelihoods. Increasing women’s participation would result in more environmental and productivity gains and would create mutual benefits and greater returns across the Sustainable Development Goals. Likewise, women’s increased involvement in adaptation and mitigation efforts would enhance the efficacy and sustainability of such efforts.


Article by Subhav Duggal, Team ulaunch.


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