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Women’s role in climate diplomacy in South Asia

It is a well-acknowledged fact that women’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change cannot be equated with that of men, which is why India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change and even State Action Plans on Climate Change have dedicated sections on gender and climate change. However, women’s representation in climate policy and diplomacy processes is incongruent with their vulnerability quotient. In South Asia, there is minimal female participation, especially in the higher echelons of policy-making related to climate change, whether at the national or international level.

The agricultural sector is the most important key to understanding women’s climate vulnerabilities in South Asia as it employs a large proportion of the female population in the region. In rural India, almost 70 percent of women are considered to be dependent on agriculture, and 70 percent of the agricultural work is known to be carried out by women. Environmental and climate change have had an adverse impact on the country’s agricultural output over the past few years, affecting female farmers in a big way. Recurring droughts in the Marathwada region of the state of Maharashtra, and annual floods in the northeast (mainly in the state of Assam) are just some of the examples wherein farmers have been severely hit by the vagaries of environmental change in India. Also, women not only face discrimination when it comes to decision-making at the local level on matters of food distribution, but also suffer on account of their relative lack of control over farmlands, as well as their lack of access to crop insurance to overcome the losses caused by environmental change.

Women’s vulnerability is exacerbated by the paucity of easy access to institutional support, credit, extension services, and other resources. Moreover, when it comes to climate adaptation and mitigation technologies, women are far less acquainted with them in terms of where they could be available and how they could be implemented or used. Considering the fact that women are mostly engaged in farm drudgery, it is important to adopt gender-sensitive techniques that do not put them at a further disadvantage.

Environmental migration (especially rural-to-urban migration caused by crop failures and/or the destruction of homes and livelihoods), is another case in point in which women find it more difficult to move elsewhere in comparison to their male counterparts. India is also home to female migrants from other South Asian countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. Most often, women are left behind to look after their children in villages while their male partners migrate to other cities or even countries in search of jobs after being displaced by environmental disasters, or other events like crop failures caused by environmental factors. Even when they choose to migrate, women’s socio-economic, cultural and physical status in society impinges on their ability to cope with climate change. For instance, due to the lack of education and access to information, women’s safety and security are jeopardised. Very often, female migrant workers resort to low-skilled jobs and end up being exploited.

These situations call for a long overdue overhaul of climate policy in general. Initiatives such as the women-led, climate resilient, one-acre farming model in the Marathwada region wherein women farmers have successfully battled droughts and farmer suicides by adopting “low-input sustainable farming techniques including efficient water use, organic farming, mixed cropping, and increased crop cycles” showcase women’s leadership and ability to cope with climate change at the local level. However, at the higher levels, there continues to be a large lacuna of gender equality in climate policy-making, as well as within climate diplomacy among South Asian countries.

It must be noted here that in India, there are many female voices from non-governmental sectors and organisations that have been actively involved in climate change negotiations and conferences at the international level, and in advising policy-makers at the national level. Yet, they remain awfully underrepresented in proportion to the female share of the country’s total population (48 percent). There are many more female scientists and researchers working on climate science and policy. However, in most climate diplomacy initiatives, women are rarely represented, particularly in ministries and government agencies, which could lead to skewed policies.

It is important for India to integrate gender issues into climate debates, policy, and diplomacy at all levels as they can and should never be gender-neutral knowing the realities on the ground. It is not enough to have a section or two on gender and climate change in action plans that could result in dealing with the issue in silos. Rather it should be a form of gender mainstreaming that allows deeper engagement with challenges faced by women.

The South Asian region as a whole urgently needs a formidable framework for understanding the complexities of gender issues in climate diplomacy, and for working towards addressing these issues holistically at the regional level. On the one hand, the countries in the region need to devise joint mechanisms to deal with gender issues in cross-border environmental migration, agricultural crises, the adoption of low-carbon technologies, and so on. At the same time, they need to ensure a greater participation of women in these processes, not for the sake of gender balance but to instil gender-sensitivity and to advance female empowerment through climate diplomacy initiatives.


Dhanasree Jayaram is a Project Associate at Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.