A recent report by UN Women paints a worrisome global picture of the progress on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pertaining to gender equality. Among several concerns raised, the report predicts that going by the current trends of progress, by 2030, nearly 8% of the world’s female population will live in extreme poverty and close to a quarter will experience moderate to severe food insecurity. The report also points to the deeply entrenched gender gap in leadership positions and in the uneven distribution of unpaid care and domestic work between men and women.
An interesting feature of this year’s report is the inclusion of the sex-disaggregated data to project the differentiated effects of climate change on gender, premised on the ‘worst-case climate scenario’. As per this methodology, 158.3 million, i.e. 16 million more women and girls, when compared to the total number of men and boys, will be pushed to poverty by mid-century due to climate change. It is also projected that nearly 236 million more women and girls will be affected by food insecurity. Against this backdrop, the recently concluded G20 Summit Declaration in India with a focus on “driving gender-inclusive climate action” and “women-led- development” gains significance. Amidst four priority areas, the role of “women and girls as change-makers in climate resilience action” has been emphasised by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.
A critical question, therefore, is to ask where India stands, on gender inclusivity in its climate action plans, given that it has been eight years since the SDG goals came into force in 2016. Is the commitment to involve women just an empty rhetoric, or is there a genuine acknowledgment of the gender dimensions of climate change?
The analysis in subsequent paragraphs will elucidate how climate change has been adversely affecting women and girls in India, and what policy imperatives need to be put in place.
How does climate change disproportionately affect women?
Women share an intimate and complex relationship with their local natural environment. Much of the household responsibilities that are climate sensitive such as collection of water, firewood, and fodder as well as ensuring food security for families fall on women.
Bina Agarwal in her book, Gender and Green Governance, provides a poignant narrative of a near-landless woman in Uttarakhand: “Of course it pains me to cut a green branch, but it also pains me when my children’s stomachs hurt if there is no firewood to cook them a meal.” The gender division of labour within households imposes demands on women’s time and the resulting drudgery of long hours of work is very uneven between men and women. When combined with fewer employment opportunities, poor occupational mobility, and low wages, women are rendered more socially and economically vulnerable.
To cite an example, the social practice of Water Wives in a village in western Maharashtra unravels the burden of traveling long distances to procure drinking water for households, leaving little time to complete other household chores. This led to a situation where men started to marry more than one woman to ensure adequate drinking water.
Despite such acute hardships faced by women in drinking water collection, India does not have a single comprehensive data and information source that would provide necessary statistics on all aspects of safe drinking water, such as the physical accessibility to the source, the reliability, the quality and the quantity required for households. While India has made tremendous progress in improving the drinking water infrastructure in rural areas – with 50% of rural households having a tap connection within the dwelling or premises – not enough information is available on whether the physical infrastructure has also translated into better reliability and safety of drinking water. Such statistics are crucial for filling existing gaps in the provision of clean drinking water in rural areas.
Another area where women suffer from the impact of climate change is the collection of fuel for cooking and lighting purposes. Higher temperatures have been found to be associated with lower accessibility to clean fuel sources through their effects on people’s livelihoods and incomes. The use of unclean fuels affects women’s health much more than men given the long hours of indoor time spent by them and their primary role in cooking.
However, a third of Indian households are still relying on firewood for cooking and there is considerable variation between rural and urban households. Nearly 47% of rural households are still dependent on firewood for cooking while only 6.5% used firewood in urban areas. A recent study found that lack of access, awareness about adverse health impacts of solid fuels, and high costs of acquiring LPG cylinders were discouraging women from shifting from traditional cooking fuels. Without addressing these glitches, the transition to clean energy in cooking fuel cannot be expected to fully materialise through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMJY) which aims to provide clean fuel to rural and low-income households.
Finally, the relatively large involvement of women in agriculture needs particular mention in the discussion of climate impacts. It must be noted that the year 2023 began with soaring temperatures that broke the 123-year-old record in February, setting the stage for alarming proportions of extreme weather events to follow.
According to the State of India’s Environment in Figures, 2023 released by the Centre for Science and Environment, India experienced extreme weather events on 84 of the 120 days in the first four months of 2023. This has tremendous implications for agricultural yields in India and these impacts can cumulatively translate into 17 million people at risk of hunger in India by 2030 and an additional 16% reduction in aggregate food production by 2050 (International Food Policy Research Institute’s, IFPRI, 2022). This creates livelihoods and health-related issues, particularly for poor women in India.
In this regard, it is important to observe that women constitute nearly 63% of the agricultural workforce in India. However, only 7% of married women in landed households own land. Inequality in land rights makes women more vulnerable while also reducing their capacity to act as conservers of land. Studies have found that women’s land title ownership had a positive influence on their ability to make decisions regarding the household, farming, and livelihood activities. Innovative approaches such as group farming that can address concerns of both inequality in access to land as well as the issue of small farm size have been suggested.
MGNREGS as a tool for social protection and climate action
Climate disasters, changing weather, and rainfall patterns have disrupted rural livelihoods that are agriculture-dependent. While men migrate to other areas for non-farm work, women end up bearing the brunt of these adverse climate events as seen in their lower food consumption, greater indebtedness, and engagement in low-paid work.
Social protection programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), which attract women in large numbers, have the potential to help rural households and economies to adapt to climate change by integrating climate risk management into its provisions. The government should ideally increase budgetary allocations for MGNREGS considering that 65% of the allocated budget to MGNREGA goes into natural resource and water management, drought proofing, and securing the livelihood of the poor and the marginalised. But on the contrary, the programme has seen drastic cuts in budgetary allocations by the Union government.
Women as decision makers: The levers of change
A women-led development paradigm must ensure women’s participation at all levels of governance, both local and national. Since women face higher risks and greater burdens from the impact of climate change, their involvement in climate change-related decision-making becomes crucial for the success of climate adaptation and mitigation plans.
Studies have shown that women’s representation in national parliaments has resulted in lower emissions through a stringent adoption of climate change policies. Unfortunately, India is among the bottom 25% of countries with only 15.2% of representation in the Lok Sabha as shown in a recent Mint analysis of Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) data. Increasing women’s representation to 33% can improve India’s relative ranking globally from the current 141st rank to 54th rank among 185 countries covered in the IPU.
To conclude, we argue that much needs to be done in the area of climate action using a gender-inclusive lens. This should not be limited to articulating goals on climate change mitigation and adaptation but must also focus on redressing the adverse impact of climate change that is already playing out in the lives and livelihoods of women.
Divya Pradeep and K.C. Adaina teach Economics at Christ University and Azim Premji University, Bangalore respectively.