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Climate change adaptation and gender dynamics

  • Published at 07:50 am May 24th, 2020
Op ed climate change

We cannot ignore the importance of gender in the fight against climate change

Monowara (30) had just returned home after fetching drinking water from a pond located almost one kilometre away from her home. Her immediate rush was to reach her five-month-old newborn son Nazmul as he was suffering from diarrhoea -- the newborn was crying out of misery. 

Lack of access to safe drinking water and salinity often causes water-borne diseases like diarrhoea and malaria, not only among the children but also the adults. Besides safe drinking water, salinity is the biggest misery of the people living in the coastal areas in Bangladesh. 

It does not only cause water-borne diseases but also several health hazards, including high blood pressure and hypertension during pregnancy. Male and female adults, people with disability and children, are all victims of climate hazards. 

But when it comes to women, they are the first to face the consequences of natural disasters and extreme weather conditions. 

As such, sociological conditions associated with gender are also determinants of the severity of climate change impacts and the capacity to withstand and adapt to such effects. In many countries, including Bangladesh, gender-specific roles and culturally-imposed behaviour expectations put women in highly exploited and disadvantaged positions. 

The role of women

This phenomenon, unfortunately, also extends to the effects of climate change. Women in Bangladesh -- rural women, in particular -- are assigned with significant workloads like managing households and care. Gathering firewood, cooking, and fetching drinking water are exclusive to women. 

Besides, they are also involved in formal and informal livelihood activities like agriculture, cultivation, managing small gardens, farmlands or livestock to support the family and/or themselves or as free labourers helping their partners. Women from middle, marginal, and poor farmer families participate in almost all stages of agricultural production and spend about 60% of their time in agricultural activities. 

These are but only a few gender-specific matters that can be significantly affected by climate change. Moreover, these are just observable material impacts. There are even more broad but invisible issues that might have widespread structural and sociological impacts of climate change vulnerability for women. 

The need for climate change action

As climate change continues to happen, availability of the resources and access to these livelihood and home farming activities will continue to decrease. They will face an increasingly difficult situation and will need to spend more time and energy to perform these tasks. 

The need for effective climate change action, including adaptation requires the integration of gender sensitivity in all levels of planning and execution. All dimensions of climate change action and planning must consider gender issues in ways that facilitate the identification and considerations of gender needs, both from short-term micro-level to broader social, political, and cultural macro-level contexts. 

This not only goes for women-specific circumstances and environments but must also think about the socio-cultural environment of men in the communities in questions. For example, accepted social behaviours and norms of men, particularly the dynamics of interaction between them and women on individual and social levels, must be considered to formulate effective climate change actions that serve the needs of everyone, instead of a particular group, without the unintentional effect of exacerbating existing injustices.

In planning adaptation actions, taking a gender-neutral approach to such might run the risk of missing or ignoring crucial information and contexts that would be necessary to fully achieve adaptation goals. A common and community-specific structural mechanism for disaster management might be in place without considering women’s needs unconsciously. 

For example, are early warnings of impending disaster properly communicated among women? Do existing evacuation plans consider their safety needs? Do specific mechanisms focusing on evacuating pregnant and elderly people exist? 

Are shelters equipped with necessary facilities and provisions to support the health, comfort, privacy, and safety needs of women, elderly, and the impaired? These are some issues among the myriad to make any adaptation effort gender-friendy.  

The importance of the gender dimension lies in the fact that different groups of people are subject to different levels of needs and opportunities. This can be further extended to the concept of gender itself -- women and men of different contexts are not affected by problems in the same manner. 

When we consider gender-sensitivity, whether it be in the context of climate change or other social issues, we must be aware that the terms “women” and “men” do not refer to a homogenous group, all consisting of similar beliefs, perceptions, agencies, etc but an innumerable number of diverse groups and classes all with their own unique experiences, contexts, and needs. 

Gender needs to become mainstream, not just in dialogue, discussion, planning, and policy-making but also in implementation and execution. Capacity building and participation of women of different contexts must be ensured to have actual sustainable change. 

Focused stakeholder participation from the public, private, academic, regional, community, grassroots level on country/sector/community-specific gaps, needs and agenda must be conducted and utilized to guide climate change actions. 

Additionally, fostering, mobilization, and utilization of women in design, administration. and technical operations would ensure that unique needs are met and not ignored or missed. Furthermore, research on gender-specific climate is needed, not just on material effects but also on the sociological dynamics between climate change and gender. 

Using sociological, anthropological, and feminist perspectives, insights, and methodologies, the overall inter-connection and inter-action through which social, political, economic etc dynamics playout with gender can be truly ascertained. 

Gaining Insights into this complex network of relations and interactions might be considerably difficult. However, this is essential, as only through such detailed insights can we learn how to plan actions that will result in long-term sustainable change. 

Lastly, mainstreaming does not just mean the inclusion of gender issues in policy, specifically focusing on gender should be a mainstay of mainstreaming. The agency of women and other non-dominant groups cannot fully realize without a distinctive focus on unique context-specific issues and backgrounds. 

Specific policy and mandates, dedicated just to gender and specific groups will thus ensure that current or future national goals and actions will be made and or adjusted to accommodate such agencies. Also, such will serve as an affirmation that the country is committed to gender and marginalized groups, through which accountability could be established.

Monowara is not a lone example -- millions of women across Bangladesh are silent victims of climate change. The government with financial support from Green Climate Fund is going to formulate the National Adaptation Plan (NAP), a blueprint of climate change adaptation. 

For successful planning and implementation of NAP, gender-focused adaptation plan should be in place. 

This will require in-depth research to understand the gender dynamics of climate change by involving the relevant development partners and experts. 

Climate change itself is neutral but restraining and oppressive social contexts have put a portion of women in a situation where they will be disproportionately affected by changing climate. To ensure that such effects are minimized as much as possible and that they can withstand and utilize risks and opportunities of climate change, a gender-specific focus needs to be given important attention in climate change dialogue and actions. 

Therefore, recognition of gender differences in adaptation needs, equal participation of women and men, and equitable access to resources should seriously be considered in the NAP process. 

Saudia Anwer and Meer Ahsan Habib are Development and Communications professionals respectively.

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