Status of gender, vulnerabilities and adaptation to climate change in the Hindu Kush Himalaya : impacts and implications for livelihoods, and sustainable mountain development

Status of gender, vulnerabilities and adaptation to climate change in the Hindu Kush Himalaya : impacts and implications for livelihoods, and sustainable mountain development

The overarching recognition in all the literature is that climate change will have huge and largely detrimental impacts on vulnerable communities, and that gender will be a defining feature in shaping individuals’ experiences of adverse circumstances. However, there is to date little research on how actual and potential climate change impacts are and will affect women and men, on adaptive capacities at community or household levels, and on the ways in which gender and social differences are expressed in and reflected through inequalities and discrimination in policies, institutions and practices.

What is crucial is to understand that even though climate change is often viewed as a purely scientific and technical phenomenon, it has profound implications for social justice and gender equality because the climatic stressors compounded by socioeconomic drivers of change will result in social, political and economic vulnerabilities of people and society, setting back development and destroying livelihoods.

The Stern review has reported that climate change will have differential impacts among countries and those living in poor countries are likely to suffer disproportionately both in terms of being impacted earlier and to a greater degree, and the Hindukush Himalayas (HKH) region is one of these. Despite rich biodiversity, the region is home to poorest of the world and the most vulnerable in the face of climate change. Poverty in the region generally manifests n low income, ill health, poor access to health facilities, malnutrition, poor education, low skill, high dependence on natural environment, high insecurity and physical vulnerability, drudgery and limited capability and enterprising capacity. These dimensions of poverty are directly or indirectly linked to mountain bio-physical and socioeconomic specificities characterized by geographic isolation, poor physical and economic infrastructure, poor access to markets, technologies, information, poor institutional services, and limited economic opportunities. Mountain people have always been exposed to droughts, floods, soil erosion, and changes in the crop cycle. However, the difference now is that not only has intensity and frequency of such stress events increased over recent decades, but at the same time the socioeconomic drivers of change, such as migration, urbanization, peri-urbanization, increasing demands for energy and power, the extraction of water for industrial and agricultural activities, waste dumping and growing pollution of water and air, is also adding to the pressure and have in a sense weakened this ability of the communities.

As elsewhere, throughout the HKH gender inequalities play a critical role in shaping people’s vulnerabilities and reducing resilience to adverse circumstances. The gender division of labor in the HKH is highly skewed, especially when agricultural, pastoral and wage labor is combined with household, community and casual labor. With high rates of male out-migration that is a feature of this region, women’s workloads in these domains of work have intensified without corresponding increases in access to resources, decision-making and secure rights to land. Women continue to be constrained by unequal power relations, gender-biased attitudes and norms, and sometimes, systematic exclusion and under-representation resulting in limited access to resources, ownership and control over critical natural resources. Thus, in a socioeconomic and political landscape of myriad forms of social exclusions, it is the gender structure, deeply entrenched socio-cultural ideologies, that marginalize women’s work contributions relative to men, rendering them more vulnerable and at risk vis-a-vis men. Thus, climate change associated risks and vulnerability have a fundamental gender dimension (Ravon 2014); and as Dankelman (2010:14) states “Like many disasters, climate change threatens to increase existing inequalities and... gender inequality is one of the most pervasive of these”.

The paper looks at a range of materials in order to develop a better understanding of how communities in general and women more particularly impacted, are coping with and adapting to their changing circumstances; the lessons that community-based adaptations from the wider South Asian region offer for helping to mitigate adverse conditions; the state of climate adaptation policies, national and local action plans (NAPAs and LAPAs) of countries of the HKH; and, finally, identifies research gaps in the regional material available on climate change and gender and makes suggestions for future actions.

In the past few years there has been an outpouring of materials addressing the issue of gender and climate. But there is a paucity of documentation on the specific risks and vulnerabilities, along with coping strategies in the context of climate change of mountain communities generally and from a gendered perspective particularly. There is limited evidence-based data on two major and related issues: (i) the role of differently positioned women in adaptation and impacts of climate change and (ii) how different drivers of change are also creating new dynamics or exacerbating existing ones. We know, for instance, that due to high rates of male out-migration women have higher workloads, responsibilities, and burdens, and that the spillover of this additional burden often results in low enrollment and disenrollment for girls from formal education.

Considerably more work is needed to better understand the number of issues that affect the differentiated relationship between and among women and men and their ability to cope with and adapt to climate change in rapidly changing environments and different socio-cultural contexts across the region. While climate variability and environmental changes clearly affect both women and men, gender inequities ranging from divisions of labor to lack of ownership of land and access to critical resources differentially shape coping strategies and ability to adapt. And, while women play a vital role in maintaining the biodiversity upon which subsistence livelihoods depend, there are still serious lacunae in our understanding of their skills, capacities, knowledge and the range of competencies that they bring to bear in their day-to-day tasks. There is clearly still much to be done and not just stop at technical interventions aimed at reducing differentiated impacts of climate change. More importantly is to bring about a paradigm shift in the institutions – from a gender neural, if not gender blind, to more social and gender transformative visions.

Identifying several gaps in knowledge and research, the paper outlines recommendations to these and also outlines strategies for supporting women as key adaptors of change.

The report was co-funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Nepal.

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