Women in Asia and Africa hardest hit by climate change have a tough time adapting to the climate emergency, even with support from family or the state, finds a new study. The results raise questions for global agreements designed to help people adapt to the climate emergency, it adds.
The findings are based on 25 case studies in three agro-ecological regions on the two continents: 14 in semi-arid locales, 6 in mountains and glacier-fed river basins (including one in Nepal) and 5 in deltas. The main livelihoods in these natural resource-dependent areas include agriculture, livestock rearing and fishing, supplemented by wage labour, petty trade and income from remittances.
Environmental risks include droughts, floods, rainfall variability, land erosion and landslides, glacial lake outburst floods, heat waves and cyclones, all of which negatively affect livelihoods. The study, A Qualitative Comparative Analysis of Women’s Agency and Adaptive Capacity in Climate Change Hotspots in Asia and Africa was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
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It found that when households take steps to adapt to the impact of climate change, the result is that the strategies ‘place increasing responsibilities and burdens on women, especially those who are young, less educated and belonging to lower classes or marginal castes and ethnicities’. This occurred even in cases where support appeared to be available in the form of families/communities or via the state.
Examples include when men migrate to find work because of climate change-induced impacts at home. While the money they earn can boost family incomes, when men are away women must shoulder a larger burden. As a result, most women ‘reported reduced leisure time, with negative consequences on their wellbeing, including the health and nutrition of themselves and their households,’ says the report.
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In other cases, governments stepped in with support but during floods or droughts, for example, men dominated state-provided aid and relief facilities, making women rely on their male relatives to receive support.
‘In a sense, women do have voice and agency, yet this is not contributing to strengthening longer-term adaptive capacities,’ concludes the report.
But in three examples in the study, one in Nepal, women did adapt to the increased burdens delivered by climate change. In Chharghare of Nuwakot district, support from a well-established cooperative enabled many women — excluding Dailit women — to switch from raising buffalo and cattle to rearing goats, which adapted better to growing rain scarcity.
“By enhancing women’s agency, we need to understand that we are helping them to create an enabling environment where a women’s right to make decisions about her own life is recognised, where women are economically empowered and free from all forms of discrimination and violence,” said Anjal Prakash, who worked on the case study for the Integrated Centre for Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
Poverty is the main factor in the declining decision-making power of women in some hot spots, says the report, even when women share responsibilities in the family and work outside of the home. In semi-arid Kenya, for example, women of female-headed households sell alcohol to earn money to pay for children’s schooling, but this exposes them to health risks, such as engaging in sexual activities with their clients.
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A 35-year-old woman told researchers, “Despite our efforts, there is a high level of malnutrition here. We can’t afford meat, we just eat rice and potatoes, but even for this, the quantity is not enough.”
The study notes that international agreements, such as the gender action plan of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) require information about what builds the adaptive capacity of women, and men, so that agreements can support sustainable, equitable and effective adaptation.
It suggests that effective social protection, like the universal public distribution system for cereals in India, or pensions and social grants in Namibia, could contribute to relieving immediate pressures on survival.
‘This however cannot always be done on the “cheap” — investments are needed to enable better and more sustainable management of resources. ‘Women’s self-help groups are often presented as solutions, yet they are confronted by the lack of resources, skills and capacity to help their members effectively meet the challenges they confront,’ the report adds.