South Asia’s vast human potential and geostrategic location have made it increasingly lucrative for international engagement. Nevertheless, deep-rooted mistrust and bilateral tensions between South Asian countries have kept the region from leveraging its potential. Over the last decade, climate change has emerged as a major non-traditional security threat demanding urgent attention. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment policymakers report, released last month, has identified South Asia as particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Highlighting frequent heatwaves and flash flooding as main concerns, the report predicts extreme weather events to strike the region in the coming decades with critical implications for marginalized and disadvantaged members of the community.
Given the intersection of climate and gender issues, and evidence that lays out the disproportionate impacts of climate change on women and young girls, the future of millions of South Asian women appears bleak under the brewing crisis. Therefore, regional countries must ramp up efforts to establish an effective climate policy framework with gender considerations integral to the response. Policymakers—at state, national, and regional levels—must remove structural and societal barriers that inhibit women’s role as active stakeholders with equal rights and representation in the climate-related decision-making sphere.
South Asian Women on The Frontlines of Climate Change
Despite the multiformity of cultures, religions, and values in South Asia, its societal norms are still quite regressive and male dominant. In most South Asian countries, women lack access to education and basic healthcare, and are more likely to experience poverty than their male counterparts. Living under strict gender constraints and limitations, women do not have the resources, skillsets, and agency to voice their needs and fight for their rights. Unfortunately, climate change and related hazards have further deepened these existing gender inequalities making women less resilient and incapacitated in the face of prevalent and future challenges.
In South Asia’s rural areas, women are the primary caretakers of the households. Their responsibilities range from collecting water from distant wells and rivers to tending to ailing family members. In many Indian states, women spend up to 4 hours each day making multiple trips on foot, often through unsafe distances, to access water for their household needs. In other cases, women and young girls compromise their education and put their mental and physical wellbeing at risk to fulfill their household duties. In addition to needing water for cleaning, cooking, and drinking, women also require access to clean water for their hygiene and sanitation. In Bangladesh’s coastal areas, rapid salt-water intrusion has made groundwater and water from ponds and wells extremely unsafe for consumption. Pregnant women in these coastal areas reportedly have higher preeclampsia and gestational hypertension rates due to saline water consumption.
Rural women also heavily contribute to the local farming, fishing, and cottage industries which are highly vulnerable to water scarcity and climate change. Unfavorable weather patterns mean that women in these sectors are put off commission, and men migrate to urban centers to pursue alternative employment opportunities. With little to no financial support, women left behind find themselves even more encumbered by household responsibilities.
Additionally, women also form the majority of those displaced or dislocated due to climate hazards. Following the floods in Pakistan in 2010, over 70 percent of those displaced were women and children. These unprotected women and children in refugee camps and informal settlements are frequent targets of gender-based violence, human trafficking, and forced prostitution.
Nevertheless, women remain undeterred and continue to fight on the frontlines of climate change. Caught up in the day-to-day struggle to survive and provide for their families, South Asian women proactively employ their own traditional ecological knowledge and skillset to adapt to the constant changes in their environments, lives, and livelihoods.
Advancing Women’s Role in the Climate Discourse
Although the conversation around climate change has gained momentum in South Asia in recent years, women remain largely absent from the climate debate. This is in part due to the bureaucratic approaches, which have traditionally marred policymaking in South Asia. Power and decision-making reside in the hands of a few, mainly male policymakers who continue to govern the decades-old system, skewed in favor of the upper echelons of society with insufficient provisions for the general population. Democratic institutions remain weak, and there is an evident lack of inclusivity at all levels with little role afforded to women and other marginalized groups in the policy discourse. Religion also retains considerable influence on South Asia’s culture and politics. The conservative nature of most dominant regional religions—often driven by patriarchal beliefs with a subordinate status for women—further gives way to greater gender disparities. Therefore, it is not surprising that climate conversations in the region have failed to transcend silos. The wide-ranging repercussions of climate change demand an urgent overhaul of the system. To this end, including women in the climate discourse and considering their related socio-economic vulnerabilities should be preliminary courses of action for policymakers.
Governments, development agencies, and regional institutions must employ a mix of bottom-up and top-down approaches towards building climate resilience and promoting gender equality on climate change issues. Financial provisions for women, greater educational opportunities, increased hiring of female water engineers, and expanded scope for women researchers and academics, will all contribute to gender-balanced climate policies and reforms. Another key factor is raising climate awareness among the rural population, focusing on providing training and employment opportunities to women. With higher poverty rates and poor infrastructural access, rural communities are much more vulnerable to climate change. Women in these communities act as main agents for driving mitigation and adaptation strategies. In this regard, Bangladesh launched a joint project by BRAC and UN Women in 2012 to facilitate Bangladeshi women affected by climate change by providing livelihood skills and disaster management training. Such targeted efforts towards women have proven to be effective in ascertaining community-wide resilience. Also, women living in the coastal and remote mountainous areas have their lives built around nature; they possess critical know-how and unique adaptation practices, which can be extremely resourceful for policymakers during the consultative stages.
Furthermore, women decision-makers and stakeholders can play a pivotal part in enhancing climate and water diplomacy efforts. Major rivers that sustain South Asia are transboundary in nature, including the Indus River and the Brahmaputra River. Bilateral tensions often adversely impact the water-sharing arrangements between riparian countries—India and Pakistan over the Indus River—and can further fuel conflict where sharing arrangements don’t exist—India and China over the Brahmaputra River. As member countries render greater attention to cross-border climate engagements and transboundary water negotiations, women’s representation can lead to more comprehensive, cooperative, and credible diplomacy outcomes.
Women’s role in our society and their invaluable contributions need to be celebrated. South Asia’s intensifying climate situation beckons increased recognition of women as agents of change who must be guaranteed a position at the policymaking table. Elevating and empowering women through gender-balanced climate policies will help build a more resilient, peaceful, and sustainable regional future.
Editor’s Note: Since Sweden announced a Feminist Foreign Policy in 2014, several other nations have also begun this journey, however the conversation and frameworks are largely rooted in western countries. In this series, run jointly with the Kubernein Initiative, contributors from across the subcontinent discuss what it means to have a “feminist foreign policy,” and how this approach could merge efforts in foreign affairs, regional policy and geopolitics, development and women’s empowerment in South Asia. The series asks to what extent countries in South Asia have incorporated a Feminist Foreign Policy approach, and the ways in which a gender-conscious approach may support security, democracy, and diplomacy on the subcontinent.