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FEATURE: Gender and climate change – iconic stories from South Asia

Mairi Dupar, CDKN Global Public Affairs Coordinator, speaks with South Asian journalists and editors meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal, about which stories on women and climate change should be grabbing the headlines.

One glance across a roomful of the South Asia Climate Change Award (SACCA) Media Fellows– and it looks like a microcosm of South Asian society. Here are women and men in equal measure, from the low plains of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu to the high mountains of Bhutan, and a gurgling baby passed eagerly from one Fellow to another, when she is not nursing in her mother’s arms.

What is notable in this serious, but spirited, professional gathering is the Media Fellows’ commitment to exploring gender relations and gender roles as they relate to climate and development. Perhaps it is the group’s diverse constitution that has brought this sensitive issue to the fore.

We are nearing the end of the inaugural retreat for the SACCA Fellows, organised by Panos South Asia and supported by CDKN, in Kathmandu, Nepal. A formal session during the week-long retreat was dedicated to gender and climate change, but the topic also figures prominently in mealtime conversations and in Fellows’ planning for the print, broadcast and online coverage they will produce using their award funds, in the coming months.

The Fellows were selected through a competitive process to receive grants for climate change and development reporting. The grants will enable them to take time away from the newsroom and  travel in the field; here they expect to uncover important stories about the impacts of climate change on poor people’s lives, and possible solutions. In total, the 48 Fellows (24 this year, 24 next year) will each produce 10 pieces of media coverage, in a mix of English and local languages. An independent panel will choose one piece, each year, to crown with the SACCA Media Excellence Award.

What discrimination means for women in a changing climate

During the retreat, Beryl Leach of Panos challenged the Fellows to consider how the balance of power among men and women in society enables or hinders women’s ability to adapt to climate change. When weather or climate-related hardship strikes, can women gain access to the resources they and their children need to recover and build resilience?  Ms Leach presented a range of factors that could hamper women’s ability to survive and adapt:

  • Women typically have less ability to move elsewhere, as they have less access to credit;
  • Women may face discrimination in food distribution and have less say in decisions about crop production;
  • Women are more likely to be excluded from community decision making and higher level policy making;
  • Low carbon technologies often fail to connect with women’s needs.

In the face of weather and climate-related disasters, women and girls are on the frontline. Their existing social disadvantage can make the negative impacts of climate extremes cut deeper: for instance, if illiterate, they cannot read disaster preparedness information; if they can’t swim or are weighed down by the long, heavy garments associated with some religions and cultures of the region, these could prove lethal in floods, Ms Leach said.

Chillingly, diasters have also been linked to sexual violence and trafficking of women and girls, when they are exploited at their most vulnerable. This is documented by Ritu Verma of ICIMOD and others (the report Women on the Frontline of Climate Change by ICIMOD, UNEP and CICERO provides a good overview.)

Iconic stories on gender and climate change

The South Asia region is rich in stories about the impact of climate change on gender roles and relations. The Fellows have discussed a range of iconic stories that have the potential to boost interest in gender and climate issues. It is hoped that by casting the spotlight on iconic stories like these, the journalists can raise public awareness, a step towards changing behaviour, and catapault such issues into the policy sphere.

Some of the iconic stories make for depressing reading and still lack widespread solutions:

The climate bachelors

Across more than a hundred villages in western India, a cohort of young men have become ‘climate bachelors’. Their villages have been struck by persistent drought, sending agricultural production into a nosedive and severely limiting access to water. Budding brides are unwilling to marry men from these villages. Revenue officers have acknowledged a steadily increasing migration of young ‘unmarriagable’ men from the area. Among those who stay, there is rising alcoholism. “No bride is willing to go there. We see a kind of social breakdown,” said Atul Deulgaonkar, a reporter for Chandramauli who also advises the Maharastra Disaster Management Authority.

The water seekers

Perhaps it’s understandable that would-be brides in Maharastra are circumspect about marrying into drought-stricken villages: increasing water scarcity is having a noticeable, negative impact on women in many locations across India and the south Asia region, according to Ermelinda Dias of Doordarshan. “There are stark stories from across the region,” said Ermelinda, “showing the daily grind women face to gather water from wells that are increasingly far from their homes. It places a burden on girls, who are increasingly told to miss school and stay at home to do the housework, as their mothers travel further, for longer, to collect water. We see it in drought-prone parts of India and Nepal.”  Meanwhile, in neighbouring Bhutan, “it is the story everywhere in rural areas,” said Tashi Dema of Kuenzel, Bhutan’s only daily newspaper. “Women must travel very long distances to gather water.”

A range of factors contributes to groundwater depletion and water scarcity among poor households – including poor local governance and the politics of water distribution – so it can’t all be attributed to climate change. However, according to the IPCC report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Adaptation (SREX), scientists find it likely that climate change was implicated in the greater number of hot days across the region in the last three decades, and it is very likely that the region will be scorched by very hot days and more frequent, longer heat waves as the 21st century progresses.

Other iconic stories emerging from the Fellows’ discussions are ‘stories of hope’ – good news stories that demonstrate climate compatible development has the potential to improve women’s status, wellbeing, and future prospects:

The kitchen gardeners

In northern Bangladesh, the climate was until recently suited for rice farming. The principal source of work for the region’s men was in the rice fields. However, in the past two to three decades, the area has experienced drying of the soil – “the once clay-rich soil has turned to barren sand that is completely unsuited to rice growing,” said Parveen Ahmed of The New Nation, Bangladesh.  Climate change has made poor people’s vulnerability even worse (an excellent case study by Selvaraju et al. explains more.) The region’s demographics have been transformed as a result: men have left in droves to seek work as migrant labourers in coastal cities such as Chittagong, often in the treacherous business of ‘ship breaking’ from where tragically, many are injured or killed. Left behind with barren fields, and in a culture where women’s place is in the home, wives awaited cash payments in increasing poverty. The Bangladeshi NGO BRAC, together with international funds from the North Bangladesh Crop Diversification Project worked with women to set up kitchen and rooftop gardens, where they can produce a range of nutritional produce for household use, as well as for cash sale.

The satisfied cooks

The use of energy-efficient cookstoves to burn firewood and other forms of biomass (such as animal dung) more cleanly than kerosene and other ‘dirty’ fuels is a well known development success story; which has played out across parts of Africa and Asia. This iconic story has women at its heart, for it is  normally the women who toil over the stove to prepare family meals, and who collect fuel for the fire. Clean cookstoves create a benefit for global society by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but for these women, the benefits are far more immediate: efficient cookstoves reduce the amount of fuel they must gather, and their clean-burning method saves them from choking smoke and related health problems. For Pragati Shahi of the Kathmandu Post, this iconic story has a special resonance for communities of the Himalayan region. “Firewood is becoming so scarce across our region and rural women’s lives are already so hard,” she said. “Clean cookstoves have the potential to be replicated even more widely across the mountain communities of Nepal, Bhutan, India and Pakistan, especially because they are low cost. They could make a big difference to women’s lives and contribute to climate mitigation.”

The forest guardians

At the close of the Fellows’ retreat, the group visited the Godavari Kunda Community Forest on the hillside outside Kathmandu. Here, the hillsides were once deforested to a barren state – “15 years ago, we said that the hillsides were so bare, you could see the ants marching,” said Ganesh Bahadur Silwal, the Secretary of the Community Forest Users’ Group. Fast forward 15 years, and thanks to organisation of the 600-strong community into a formal association to protect and regenerate the forest, the forest now provides a sustainable source of firewood for household needs. The formalisation of this local group endowed the village’s female forest users with greater status. “We collected most of the firewood anyway,” they said, “now that is recognised and we play a key role in monitoring the growth of the trees and allocating firewood fairly in the community.”

Watch this space

Among the Fellows, women and gender issues are not confined to the pens of female journalists. Pon Danasekaran of Puthiya Thalamurai, Tamil Nadu, India has a special interest in gender issues. He won the Sarojini Naidu Prize from the Hunger Project for his coverage of women community leaders, and the Laaldi Media Award for gender sensitive reporting. He now looks forward to applying this sensibility to climate change issues.

Watch this space for reporting on gender and climate change issues from the SACCA Fellows as they fan out to their respective corners of South Asia to begin – or reinvigorate – their reporting.  For more about the SACCA Fellows programme, visit

Read Elizabeth Colebourn’s blog on the power and responsibility of editors to cover climate change  from the SACCA Fellows’ retreat.

Image: Nepali women carrying firewood, copyright DFID.


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