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Female Employment & Climate Change – A Surprising Dichotomy

By Renuka Bhat

In the list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) listed by the UN, numbers 5 and 13 advocate Gender Equality and Climate Action, respectively. As has been seen in case of other goals like Quality Education and No Poverty, these goals don’t exist in mutually exclusive spheres and cannot be achieved independently. Contemporary research focuses on how best intersectional policies on a local level can achieve the SDGs globally. And although prima facie the linkage of female economic empowerment may sound irrelevant to climate action, new research in the latter part of the past decade proves otherwise. A new McKinsey report visualises a “full potential” scenario in which women and men participate in the labour market equally. It can lead to an increase of 26% of the annual global GDP, enough to plug the climate finance gap currently.

Here, the focus is on lower income, rural communities. Limited by traditional gender roles, women in these communities lacking financial independence is no secret (unsurprisingly, women account for 70% of the world’s poor). It has been found out that women, mostly in the developing countries as well as in the more orthodox, socially backward classes, are also the most affected by climate change. But they are also the solution to it. However, concluding that it is because of their negligible participation in economic activities is not only simplistic, but also vastly untrue. The concern here is that most of their labour consists of unpaid family workers in the rural primary sectors or in the informal sector. Yet, that doesn’t imply that their value addition is not significant either. For example, despite accounting for 50% of the global agricultural work force, female farmers are responsible for 90% of Africa’s food supply. Closer home, female farmers make up to 65% of the Indian agricultural labour force. Even excluding agricultural workers, women’s employment in the informal sector was 7.8% higher than men worldwide.

The general discourse on female labour participation revolves around higher education and wage gap in the tertiary sector as well as orthodox marital impediments. However, there is a gross neglect in the discourse revolving protection of women involved in primary or informal sectors. More than 33% of female employment worldwide is in agriculture and allied activities, despite non-accounting of unpaid family labourers. A major factor worsening the cycle of poverty amongst women is, surprisingly, climate change. There is a dire need for intersectional study between gender reforms and climate change (Djoudi et al., 2016). Yet, a wider peek in their lives can show why. From fetching firewood, collecting water for their households, using organic energy sources to being responsible for local produce, the domestic activities of women in low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs), vastly depends on natural resources. In fact, women manage over 70% water-related chores globally. Several reports by the United Nations as well as other environmental non-profits indicate how women’s lives being so intimately entwined to the environment increases their vulnerability to the climate crisis. When natural disasters strike, women’s lives and livelihoods are affected the most – 14% more than men’s.

The International Institute for Environment and Development in its report on Gender considerations in national low carbon resilient development plans and strategies enlist important measures that ought to be undertaken for a unified approach to a sustainable development in gender equality and climate action. It proposes economic empowerment of women through microfinance, employment and entrepreneurial schemes. This takes into cognizance their under-representation, sometimes, exclusion from access to income, credit or other monetary assets. Along with formidable social and economic supporting frameworks, it notes that broader gendered representation in climate change reforms are key. Another International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report states it can have a positive ripple effect in health as well as food and economic security sectors by a “more environmentally friendly decision making at household and national levels”. Currently, there are several programs working towards the climate crisis on an international level focusing on female financial empowerment in LMICs. The Lima Work Programme on Gender adopted at COP20 in 2014, for example, promotes gender balance and achieving gender-responsive climate policy.

The Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) program aims to protect the resource rights of rural and indigenous populations, especially of women, from corporate encroachments on their resources, as a whole, reforming land tenure policies. It aids women in LMICs, with their less access to formal education than men, to negotiate for their legal rights on their resources.

Throughout Africa, there are several local movements along with national policy reforms over different resource issues. Senegalese women, the main cultivators of rice there, are involved in thwarting the impact of rising sea levels on the salinization of rice fields. In Kenya, through the Green Belt Movement, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai has worked for rural Kenyan women’s access to water and firewood since 1977. In Gambia, The Programme for Accelerated Growth and Employment places emphasis on women’s employment so as to enable greater access to credit and assets as well as incorporate them into political decision-making. Recent Climate Action Programmes by Uganda and Tanzania also aim to incorporate female employment initiatives into mainstream climate policies.

Many Asian countries have also recently brought about sincere policy developments in this field. Bangladesh, in particular, has numerous initiatives for female farmers. The Climate Change and Gender Action Plan of 2013 includes giving crop insurance, increasing access to alternative technologies and easing the lease of land or water bodies to women along with skill development training workshops by women’s organisations. In Cambodia, The Gender and Climate Change, Green Growth, And Disaster Management Gender Assessment issued by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs centred its attention on creating opportunities for women, moving towards a low-carbon society. In India, amongst the many non-profits working independently for sustainability, a notable organisation is Rajasthan Gramin Aajeevika Vikas Parishad (Rajeevika). With the help of IIT-Bombay on the technological know-how, more than two hundred women in local self-help groups work on fixing LED lights in their settlements via solar panels, generating an annual turnover of ₹1.2 crore.

Throughout their lives, having lived and interacted so closely with the environment, women in LMICs, especially indigenous groups have a lot to offer to the climate discourse. All they need is a platform to tell their stories and rights to protect their way of living. These rural women empowerment schemes do just that. As much as educating the socio-economically forgotten is important, the manner of its execution has equal significance. Many global concerns in this day and age have fallen victim to a bipartisan outlook of “us vs them”. Nevertheless, as clichéd as it sounds, we are all in this together. So, by educating and including them in climate policy-making, we are, in fact, doing ourselves a favour. And it is high time we realised that.

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