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Are Women in South Asia more prone to the effects of Climate Change?

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Climate change is a serious cause of concern in our time, owing to the catastrophic impact of natural hazards on the lives of people, the destruction of the environment and the devastation of the economy. Climate change is expected to amplify disaster risk by leading to an increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of natural hazards, intensifying vulnerability, and exposure. Climate change is a global challenge that burdens the whole the humanity but not equally. The increase in the frequency of extreme events deteriorates the living conditions of people, especially in developing countries that are already bearing a disproportionate burden of climate change impacts. Island countries and African countries are anticipated to be most vulnerable to climate change by 2030 (Patel et al., 2020). Althor et al. (2016) showed that among the 36 highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting countries, around 20 countries are least vulnerable to dismissive impacts of future climate change, and contrastingly, 11 of the 17 low or moderate GHG emitting countries are highly susceptible to dismissive impacts of climate change. Countries having higher GHG emissions are aware of their detrimental impacts on the world’s environment. However, many of them are consciously emitting higher GHGs just to drive their economic growth and development. However, developing countries are also the most vulnerable due to climate change and its impact on water, livelihood, food security and health (Althor et al., 2016).

Population growth, natural resource degradation, high poverty rates and lack of food insecurity have rendered South Asia as one of the most vulnerable regions to the effects of climate change. The impact of climate change on women are affected in a higher degree compared to men in terms of mortality and their ability to survive following the disasters. In most countries, women are more likely to be killed in disasters than men, which has a negative impact on their life expectancy. Biological and physiological differences between the sexes are unlikely to explain large-scale differences in mortality rates between genders. Social norms and role behaviors provide some further explanation, but what is likely to matter most is the everyday socioeconomic status of women (Neumayer & Plümper, 2007).

South Asia, comprising eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, is home to over one fifth of the world’s population and is the most densely populated geographical region in the world. According to the United Nations Environment Program 2003, South Asia is regarded as the most disaster-prone region in the world. South Asia is where the majority of the world’s poor are located. In 2009, there were 1.02 billion people worldwide who were undernourished, as reported by FAO (2009). The estimate of undernutrition in South Asia is approximately 456 million people (Daw et al., 2009). Climate change will add to the dual challenge of meeting food (cereal) demand while at the same time protecting natural resources and improving environmental quality in these regions (Cassman et al,.2003). The livelihood of dry lands populations is at risk due to climate change impacts like changes in temperature, shifts in growing seasons, storms, floods, droughts, and changed rainfall patterns over time (Sivakumar & Stefanski, 2011). Floods, heat waves, weak monsoons, and unseasonal rains, all occurring in a relatively short timeframe, are adversely affecting millions of poor people. The nature of the risks facing their lives and livelihoods is becoming increasingly unpredictable. The poorest and marginalized living in ‘climate hotspots’, namely coastal areas, mountain ranges, semi-arid regions, and cities, are the worst affected. The most vulnerable are those who depend on agriculture and the agrarian economy directly (Rao et al., 2021).

To gain a better understanding of the impacts of climate change on women, let’s review some information related to each South Asian country.

1. Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a country in South Asia with 34 provinces, and Kabul as its capital. It is a mountainous, landlocked, poor and developing country. In 2020, the population of Afghanistan was estimated 38.9 million people and the Gross Domestic Product per capita (GDP per capita) was estimated 512.7 dollars (World Bank, 2021). Afghanistan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the adverse effects of climate change and its consequences. According to the German Watch 2021 Climate Risk Index, Afghanistan is classified as the sixth most climate-vulnerable country in the world, after Mozambique, Zimbabwe, the Bahamas, Japan, and Malawi.

Afghanistan is susceptible to climate change for many different reasons. The first reason is that Afghanistan is a poor country with a high rate of poverty, making it significantly vulnerable to climate change. In 2020, Afghan households experienced poverty at a rate that ranged from 47.3 to 54.5%, according to a UNICEF report published in 2021 (UNICEF, 2021). The findings of numerous types of research show that poor countries and poor communities suffer more from climate change consequences. Poverty makes the government unable to respond to the needs of the people, but at the same time, it makes people unable to access the resources and facilities they need. Therefore, Afghanistan’s vulnerability to climate change increases people’s suffering from the consequences of climate change (Zaki & Lederer, 2023).

The majority, 61 percent of illiterate people in the country are women. Women in the southern, mostly Pashtun (ethnic group) belt have especially low literacy rates because of high cultural barriers. Parents often do not want girls to be taught by male teachers and so do not send girls to school (UNDP 2020). Reaching women and girls to help them become aware and knowledgeable about weather forecasts and climate projections is difficult because women are still largely excluded from public, political and economic life. The majority, 85 percent  of women of working age are unemployed and heavily reliant on their families, mainly the male members, for support. This is twice the rate of dependence of their male counterparts on families for economic support. There is cultural pressure to have more sons to ensure there are an adequate number of breadwinners for the family. Over half of the women, and three-quarters among poorer families, give birth to their children at home without skilled birth attendants. Women, especially in female-headed households, are more food insecure than men and often take to begging as a coping mechanism (UNDP 2020). Women thus have little economic security and hardly any decision-making power to reduce their vulnerability to shocks and stresses. Girls are often sold into marriages during periods of climatic instability (e.g., drought) so that their families can afford to eat (CIFRC, 2021).

2. Bangladesh

Bangladesh is likely to experience an increase in the frequency, intensity, duration, and extent of floods and cyclones, which are the main climatic hazards. Increased glacial melting in the Himalayan headwaters will lead to an increase in spring and early summer flows, resulting in an increased flood risk. The problems of drought will intensify during winter. It is probable that the current winter dry season will become significantly worse. How these increased hazards will affect women is extremely difficult to predict. The connection between poverty and vulnerability is crucial and has a disproportionate impact on women. Women will be increasingly affected by the impact of intensified hazards on their ability to resist and recover if there is no significant progress in reducing poverty. If economic inequalities between men and women are reduced more generally, this outcome could change (Hazards et al., 2012).

Bangladesh regularly experiences drought in its agricultural sector. In drought-prone areas, the major concerns of local women include food insecurity, problems collecting drinking water, and outbreaks of diseases. Women’s lives are negatively impacted by the challenges of maintaining a homestead vegetable garden and managing water and fodder for livestock. Although drought is well managed through groundwater irrigation, women have little or no option to cope with adverse conditions around them. To increase their financial flow, women sometimes work as day laborers in pre-harvest and post-harvest activities while also taking full responsibility of their household activities. They also try to grow various types of vegetables in their courtyard that are moderately drought-tolerant (Sharmin & Islam, 2013). In Bangladesh, rural women play a role in food production and supply activities by raising plantlets, gathering seeds, post-harvesting, raising and milking cattle, raising goats, rearing backyard poultry, fishing, agriculture, horticulture, food processing, cane and bamboo works, silk reeling, weaving, garment making, fishnet making, coir production, and handicrafts. A significant number of rural women, particularly from extremely poor landless households, are also engaged in paid labor in construction, earthwork, and field-based agricultural work, activities that traditionally have fallen within the male domain. In low-income households, women actively participate in economic activities to support their families, with the majority of them involved in homestead-based work (Parvin & Ahsan, 2013).

Women are more at risk due to gender inequalities during extreme climatic events like drought, floods, and other climate-related disasters, resulting in disproportional disaster impacts. After the Asian Tsunami, women and children were 14 times more likely to die during natural disasters than men. Cultural traditions in developing countries increase the vulnerability of women to the effects of climate change because they are often not allowed to participate in public spheres and have limited access to critical information for emergency preparedness. In developing countries, women have lower participation in the labor force and are mostly employed in lower-paid and insecure jobs than men. The International Labor Organization (ILO) reported in 2007 that 59 percent of women in South Asia work as contributing family workers, compared to only 18 percent of men (International Labor Organization, 2008). Corresponding figures are 35 percent of women compared to 18 percent of men for Sub-Saharan Africa and 7 percent of women compared to 4 percent of men in Latin America. Furthermore, gender disparities in earnings persist in almost all employment categories, including informal wage employment and self-employment. When it comes to financial resources to cope with climate change and disasters, women are at a disadvantage due to receiving less pay than their male counterparts, which ranges from 20-50 percent of men’s salaries in countries like Afghanistan to 57-79 percent in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Women in Bangladesh are engaged in various formal and informal sectors for the survival of their livelihoods (Zahan Tanny & Wakilur Rahman, 2017).

3. Bhutan

Bhutan is a developing country located in the Eastern Himalayan Mountain ecosystem and is regarded as highly exposed to the impacts of climate change. Climate change is one of the biggest threats to forests and community livelihoods in Bhutan, with agriculture production vulnerable due to more erratic rainfall patterns, and forests due to increased incidences of disturbance and invasive species (Choden et al., 2020). Climate change is likely to have a major impact on Bhutan, as it is predicted to increase temperatures and alter precipitation patterns. Changes in weather and climate are already having an impact on regional ecosystems, which is evident by significant losses in the size and distribution of Himalayan glaciers, as well as decreased water availability for irrigation, agriculture, hydropower, and household uses. Furthermore, Bhutan is prone to floods caused by glacier lake outbursts. Therefore, climate change presents a very specific threat to their security, especially women and children. Women’s responsibilities in the family make them more vulnerable to environmental change, which is exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. They are being affected in their multiple roles as food producers and providers, as guardians of health, care givers, and economic actors. In such situations, women have less time to earn income, get an education or training, or to participate in governing bodies (Dankelman et al., 2008). Nearly 94 percent of the poor, including many women, live in the rural sector of Bhutan, where they are directly affected by climate impacts. Strategic planning and regionally appropriate adaptation practices for the agricultural sector are required due to these trends and risks, which will be exacerbated in the coming decades.

4. India

Women, who are particularly vulnerable to climate change, are the only gender mentioned in the Indian Government’s National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC). In that one place, the NAPCC (2008:14) states that the impacts of climate change could prove particularly severe for women. With climate change there would be increasing scarcity of water, reductions in yields of forest biomass, and increased risks to human health with children, women and the elderly in a household becoming the most vulnerable special attention should be paid to the aspects of gender.’’ The Swedish Bill on climate and energy policy (Regeringens Proposition, 2008:220) echoes sentiments voiced above but with its own perspective: ‘‘Many developing countries are especially vulnerable to climate effects because of poverty, conflicts, lack of gender and social equality, environmental degradation, and lack of food’’. The Bill considers gender equality and women’s role in development to have an important bearing on work on climate change in the South. Models of climate change take population size into account, but they typically treat it as a given (for example, Stern 2006; Nordhaus 2008, 2012). They tend to use the United Nations’ medium-variant population projections. Using this approach, the World Bank estimates the impact of climate change on the growth in agricultural productivity required to meet the world’s growing food demand. The model incorporates projected increases in food demand due to growth in incomes and population size and shows how much more difficult it will be to meet that demand given anticipated climate change. What is needed is a huge increase in agricultural productivity, backed by greatly intensified regulation to protect natural systems (Gupta, 2014).

There are millions of poor women in India who do not have access to resources and opportunities to improve their lives, and those who are affected badly by climate change impacts. The effects of climate change make their personal health, security, education, and many other opportunities vulnerable.

5. Maldives

The Maldives is a group of approximately 1,190 islands located just south of India, organized into 26 low-lying coral atolls. Around 200 islands are inhabited and about 80 more are used as tourist destinations. There are 298 km2 of land area, but there are no islands larger than 10 km2 (Stancioff et al., 2018). Maldives is a prominent and active participant in climate conferences and negotiations worldwide. Most recently, Maldives Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid asked, ‘What greater security threat do we have than this?’, during an open debate at the Security Council on the impact of climate-related disasters on international peace and security. He further explained, ‘Climate change has been ravaging the Maldives for years, causing coastal erosion, destruction of coral reefs that protect islands, pollution of fresh water from seawater, and depletion of fish stocks.’ More importantly, he added, “climate change will take our homes away from us.”

During the 2016 El Niño disaster, more than 60 percent of the Maldives’ coral reefs, which contain about 3 percent of the world’s coral reefs, bleached. The decline in bait fishing has caused damage to coral reefs and impacted the traditional livelihood of fishermen in this country, as pointed out by many local experts. In the future, sea level rise and coastal erosion, as well as more frequent storms, may lead to displacement and forced migration. This could have security implications, contributing to tensions and conflicts over limited resources and land. In 2020, the Parliament of the Maldives declared a climate emergency, calling for worldwide recognition of the imminent and undeniable threat of climate change (Thoha, 2020). The national parliament has a significant gender disparity with women holding only six out of fifty seats, despite the low percentage of women in senior and managerial positions (10-20 per cent depending on the industry) (Fulu, 2007).  According to the World Bank, nearly 6 percent of the population in Maldives is under extreme poverty, including a significant portion of women and children.

6. Nepal

The Initial National Communication Report (INCR) 2004, prepared by the Government of Nepal, and the Climate Change Policy, 2011 reflect the negligible contribution made by Nepal to global emissions and the disproportionate impact it will suffer. Women tend to have little to no access or control over all the land and productive resources. Women in the developing world are disproportionately affected by climate change because they are relatively poor and have lower access to necessary resources. Women tend to be living in high levels of poverty and are plagued by illiteracy, which limits their access to information and resources that can help them adapt to changing climates (Sharma, 2016).

Apart from changing climate conditions, rapidly changing socio-economic contexts can affect the way gender relations are produced and reproduced, influencing adaptation processes. For instance, in Nepal, the increase in men’s outmigration has been reported as a positive influence on women’s decision-making processes, including in agro biodiversity management. Despite many improvements in women’s decision-making roles, women bear the bulk of the local challenges associated with adapting to a changing climate and its everyday effects on agro biodiversity management. These have follow-on effects that include changes in household income, labor availability, and other similar realities. Emerging climate issues collide with socio-economic changes in households and villages, and this interplay is not limited to specific scales in relation to agrobiodiversity management (Bhattarai et al., 2015).

Women make up the majority of Nepal’s poor, making them among the most vulnerable. The women are highly dependent on natural resources in order to secure their livelihoods, which is achieved through their responsibilities for family farming and other activities, such as collecting water and biomass for energy. The climatic impacts influence the women’s livelihoods, health, and also creates more unequal gender relations between women and men. Thus, during a crisis, women may have a harder time challenging the status quo in relation to men, which may entrench their existing unequal roles and responsibilities. Moreover, Nepalese women have less opportunity to access relevant information and to acquire skills to cope with the impacts of climate change and adapt to it (Aguilar, 2007).

7. Pakistan

Pakistan is a diverse country occupying over 88,000 square kilometers (KM2) and is characterized by a vast range of topography, ecosystems, socio-economic conditions, and climate zones (World Bank, 2011, 3).  Deforestation, biodiversity loss, air pollution, lack of access to safe drinking water, and climate change are among the environmental challenges faced by the country (Kayani, 2017). The Global Climate Risk Index 2021 has ranked Pakistan as the 5th most vulnerable country to climate change, just like other areas of the world. Climate change has had a negative impact on the agricultural sector, which is the foundation of Pakistan’s economy. Women play an essential role in the effective performance of agriculture; therefore, existing climatic pressures are making women more vulnerable (Habib et al., 2022).

Pakistan’s population is predominantly rural (63%), and largely depends on land-based resources (World Bank, 2015). The forest area is only being degraded at a rate of only 5 percent (GoP, 2015). Around 60 percent of country land is classified as rangelands, of which 40 percent have become irreversible pasturing conditions. The fact that shrinking natural resources are now feeding a population that has tripled since 1971 puts a lot of pressure on the basic roles of women and men in a household. Furthermore, as soils degrade due to multiple factors (deforestation, erosion, land cutting, salinity, and water logging), and food production decreases, women are found to be even more stressed and marginalized. The term feminization of poverty in Pakistan describes this entire process. The perception of poverty within poor communities is that women are poorer than men, and gender differences exist in the experience of poverty (Nizami & Ali, 2017). Within poor communities, women are considered poorer than men and there are gender differences in experiences of poverty (Nizami & Ali, 2017).

8. Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, women are disproportionately affected by climate impacts due to gender-based inequalities, coupled with other intersecting factors (such as ethnic and racial background, religion, gender identity, disability, and income level) that further endanger them during times of crisis. The 2012 National Census of Sri Lanka reported that 51.5 percent of the population were women, with a 106-to-100 ratio of men to women. Agriculture and water are two critical areas in the country where the impacts of climate change are being experienced. Agriculture-related fields account for roughly 30% of all women in Sri Lanka. Agriculture involves women as both paid laborers and unpaid family workers. The number of women working as unpaid family workers is estimated to be 16.4 percent of the total employed female population, while male unpaid family workers account for only 2.5 percent of the employed male population (Balasri, 2023).

How can women be prepared to face the impacts of climate change?

Ensuring quality education for women, girls, and children, including climate change impacts and potential behavioral and mitigation processes, would help to overcome certain climate change impacts. Giving women equal rights in agricultural and environmental decision-making processes is also very important.  Technical environmental training and climate education for girls can improve their resilience and capacity to critically engage with climate information and lead climate solutions.  “In developed and developing countries alike, girls’ participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education on an equal platform with boys can enable them to access traditionally male-dominated ‘green’ jobs and contribute to an equitable and just transition.

It is certain that women and girls are already developing their own solutions to the interlinked challenges of climate change and gender inequality. Access to climate finance is necessary to scale these up. It needs to address gender-responsive policy measures both at national and international levels to overcome disparities, inequalities, and injustices.

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Saman Janaranjana Herath
Saman Janaranjana Herath
PhD (NRE). MBA (Fin). Associate Professor, University of Mount Olive, North Carolina, USA. Writer,

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