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South Asia needs to adopt a gender mainstreaming approach in climate policy

Women and girls walking on a street in South Asia.

The disproportionate impacts of environmental and climate change on women are being studied and documented worldwide. However, when it comes to addressing the gender gap in environmental and climate policies, very little has been accomplished so far, even in the most advanced societies.

South Asia, as a region, is highly vulnerable to these changes in the environment, and its vulnerability is exacerbated by poverty, inequality and other structural fragilities. Women are largely viewed as victims of these factors, and there is also increasing emphasis on policies that are targeted specifically at women. At the same time, there needs to be more discussion on women as active stakeholders; and therefore, more action on integration of women into decision-making processes on a much larger scale and more importantly, integration of women’s ideas, perspectives and standpoints in the decisions. In addition to the fact that common sense tells you that women should be equally involved in shaping policies in societies for greater legitimacy, women’s engagement can significantly improve outcomes. It can ensure that policies are based on equity and justice, taking into consideration local realities, interests of marginalized communities, social norms and power disparities. Legitimacy and justice are essential prerequisites for planetary security.

The need of the hour is thus gender mainstreaming at all policy levels, and not merely discuss women’s issues as a separate agenda item, as is the practice today.

How do Climate Fragility Risks Affect Women in South Asia

There are multiple ways in which women are exposed to climate fragility risks. One such setting is informal settlements or urban slums that are environmentally, socio-economically and at times politically vulnerable, and are mushrooming across South Asia at a rapid rate. In these settings, poor infrastructure, resource stress, environmental degradation, poverty, climate risks, social exclusion and stigma, livelihood insecurity, health hazards and other fault lines (such as political, ethnic or religious) combine to compound the fragility risks. Women and other marginalized communities are affected more than others owing to their disempowered status.


Although it is difficult to isolate the role of climatic factors in exacerbating the vulnerabilities of women, a few studies have shown that the burden on women to cope with disasters, diseases and other first and second order, direct and indirect effects of climate change is greater. A study by Urban Institute (conducted in the slums of Delhi, Dhaka, Islamabad, and Lahore) states, “Climate change affects every aspect of their lives: their financial security, their marriage, and their physical well-being.” However, there is clearly a need for more research on how climate change affects women for better policy-making in order to avoid backdrafts of climate action – both mitigation and adaptation. 

Gender in Intergovernmental Processes: Where does South Asia Stand?

If one looks at the chronology of gender in the intergovernmental process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the pace at which the process of integrating women into various aspects of climate change negotiations and climate policy processes is rather slow. The move to introduce a Gender Action Plan has been a long-awaited one, and it refers to “mainstreaming a gender perspective in all elements of climate action”, which is the goal that all parties should be working towards, as this approach is visibly lacking. In most cases, a gender perspective or component is affixed as an addendum and not streamlined from the beginning. Mainstreaming a gender perspective would involve steps such as mandatory quotas for women in institutions, agencies and programmes that deal with climate policy at various levels; gender budgeting in climate action plans; addressing legal issues concerning women’s rights (including in terms of resource access and ownership); increased consultation with women on the ground during the planning and implementation processes; and perhaps even realignment of existing frameworks that address climate change to have a strong gender component.

The question is whether South Asian countries are ready for such an overhaul, especially in light of the “traditional” roles imposed on women in these societies. At the Planetary Security Conference 2019, the interlinkages between gender, conflict and resource management were discussed; and one of the points that was emphatically focused upon was the virtual exclusion of women from conflict resolution mechanisms due to systemized operationalization of roles that men and women ‘ought’ to play in the society – while men are associated with power, economic, policy and similar relations, women are seen in terms of their ‘function’ in day-to-day lives – as stressed by Nisha Pandey, conflict Analyst, Shodh Nepal, at the conference. In such a scenario, it is difficult to envisage greater influence for women in international, regional, national and local processes, concerning climate change.

Gender and Climate Diplomacy

A study by Women's Environmental & Development Organization (WEDO)

on gender analysis of (first) Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), now NDCs, reveals that the majority of South Asian countries do not mention gender or women in their respective INDCs. Even if they do, they are mentioned as a part of their larger sustainable development strategy, and not specifically in relation to climate change. Of course, NDCs are expected to be revised, especially after the establishment of the Gender Action Plan, but this revision essentially reinforces the practice of incorporating gender aspects as a secondary step in climate policy-making and implementation. Considering the fact that the international community has spent many years merely discussing why the connections between climate change and gender are important at all, this does not come as a major surprise.

To address gender and specifically women’s concerns through the lens of sustainable development, inclusivity and equity are a good start. However, there is a long way when it comes to gender mainstreaming in decision-making and policy implementation processes in the South Asian region. But without this, the effectiveness of climate action would be reduced and socio-economic inequalities would be exacerbated, leading to further fragility risks. There are examples from within South Asia that demonstrate the capacity of women to influence climate policy making and implementation at the local level. The installation of cleaner cook stoves by women in countries like India and Bangladesh are happening on a large scale, especially in rural areas. Programmes such as these can provide women livelihood opportunities and socio-economic welfare as well as augment deployment of low-emission technologies. Another example is that of 'Solar Mamas', a group of women from developing nations who have been trained under Government of India-supported programmes in harnessing solar energy at the Barefoot College at Tilonia village in Ajmer, Rajasthan.”

The post-2020 climate regime needs to bridge this staggering gap on an urgent basis:

  1. First and foremost, the Gender Action Plan needs to be mainstreamed into the main agreement itself so that all the proposed mechanisms – including market mechanisms –are gender inclusive.
  2. Second, in South Asia, where the representation of women in legislative bodies itself is dismal (just 17%), it is imperative that this number rises substantially in order to guarantee meaningful participation of women in climate action plans and discussions on climate change in general. Therefore, structural and legislative changes are critical to future climate policy making.
  3. Third, private and civil society actors, who have an essential role to play in the post-2020 climate regime, need to take the lead on gender mainstreaming in South Asia as well as the rest of the world.

Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Political, Historical and International Studies hosted by the University of Lausanne, Switzerland; Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India


[The views expressed in this article are personal.]