Climate change is affecting us all, but certain demographics more than others. Marginalised communities — and within them, women in particular — feel the discriminatory impacts of climate change more severely.
Although this heightened vulnerability is due to a range of factors, a defining reason remains the limited capacity to adapt by those who are financially marginalised.
Women living in rural areas of Pakistan tend to feel the impacts of climate change more aggressively due to their assigned traditional gender roles and responsibilities. Being solely accountable for essential domestic tasks makes women highly dependent on depleting natural resources like water and firewood.
Climate change in turn exacerbates competition for limited resources and increases the burden and frustration of successfully completing what would otherwise be mundane household chores.
An unwarranted increase in responsibilities, coupled with economic, social and cultural barriers, leaves women inequitably affected by climate change.
During a 2019 Oxfam study, titled Climate Induced Migration in Pakistan, that I co-authored, we found that in the coastal districts of Sindh, a growing and mismanaged water crisis forces women to trudge an average distance of two kilometres, sometimes multiple times a day, to collect water from wells and scattered hand pumps.
In 2016, Unicef calculated that women and girls globally spend 200 million hours, or 22,800 years, — every single day — collecting water.
Think of the growing opportunities women sacrifice struggling to access a basic human right. Young girls, without choice, are forced to forego their education to assist with household burdens instead.
Walking longer distances to collect water not only intensifies the workload for women but also exposes them to a greater risk of harassment and sexual abuse.
The World Health Organization has further concluded that women and their female offspring suffer more health problems and nutritional deficiencies than their male counterparts while travelling long distances to collect water.
Many women in Sindh have also complained of severe back pain, headaches and hair loss from the excruciating drill of carrying heavy metal pots full of water on their heads. All woes of no inconsequential nature, especially when a result of direct state failure.
Coupled with weak governmental policies and abject poverty, climate change is acting as a stress multiplier for all. However, in many areas cultural and social norms still inhibit women from possessing any real decision making powers.
Patriarchal restraints decrease a woman’s adaptive capacity to climate change, leaving her more susceptible to its impacts and the aftermath of disasters induced or exacerbated by climate change.
Multiple studies now confirm that women are the most affected in the aftermath of disasters, including suffering enhanced exposure to sexual assault and violence. In fact, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature stated that women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during disasters.
A primary reason for this remains the differences in socialisation opportunities provided to both boys and girls, such as developing skills for swimming.
During the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, many women refused to leave their homes due to imposed restraints on female mobility of not being allowed to leave the house without a male relative present. Women, across Pakistan, can relate to this.
A direct consequence of climate change is an increase in net migration rates, a phenomenon also recognised in the preamble to the Paris Agreement.
The International Organization for Migration has calculated the overall net migration rate in Pakistan between the period 2015-2020 at 1.7 migrants per 1,000 people. From statistics last updated in 2015, women constitute 48.9 per cent of the migrating populace.
A serious dearth of reliable statistics on climate-induced migration in Pakistan continues to pose an obstacle to the introduction of more meaningful policies. However, Pakistan saw 1,800 people displaced due to disasters in 2017.
Furthermore, per the Overseas Development Institute, between 2012- 2018, Pakistan has lost 4,324 people to disasters, while 11,514,578 have been affected by disasters either directly or indirectly. With an expected increase in climate change-related and/ or exacerbated disasters, these numbers will definitely surge.
On the run from climate change
Sindh has been identified as the hotspot for climate impacts and an unaccounted number of families have already migrated inland, triggering unmonitored rural-to-urban migration.
Rising sea levels not only intensify damage caused by flooding, but also wash away livelihood opportunities by encroaching on agricultural land and disrupting breeding conditions in local fisheries.
As climate change continues to distress the two primary means of household income, many regions are engulfed by an epidemic of acute malnourishment in humans and livestock alike. Climate change-induced migration is an adaptation strategy to escape a global reality that is inequitably uprooting those who possibly contributed the least to it.
For women, climate induced-migration comes with its own wearisome set of challenges; whether they migrate with men or are left behind by them, their suffering is without respite.
Those women accustomed to working on agricultural lands or fisheries must now secure other means of livelihood with their limited skill sets. Women suffer disproportionately from climate change due to cultural restraints prohibiting them from diversifying their sources of income.
Similarly, many women are not allowed to exercise their inheritance rights or own land, making climate change threaten the already limited financial security for women.
Alternatively, women caring for their families must now choose between accompanying the family men when they migrate in search of livelihood, or risk remaining behind alone as sole guardians of the children and the family’s property.
This trapped existence for women leaves them susceptible to heightened exposure from poverty, violence, sexual abuse, exploitation and natural disasters.
If these two options sound like being caught between a rock and a hard place, try relating to those women who don’t even have the personal liberty to decide what is best for themselves.
In many rural areas of Pakistan, most women will never have the authority to decide whether they can or cannot migrate. The firm grip of stringent cultural values may impede the migration of women by labelling it unethical and a threat to their highly-guarded honour.
Some women will automatically lose the possibility of voluntary migration because they are pregnant or their offspring too young. Climate change is forcing women to feel unsafe at home without offering them the option of choosing safety.
Some women, either by force or will, undertake short-term seasonal migration during the harvest period along with the entire family.
Throughout this time, entire households reside in makeshift homes, often on the agricultural fields, where women and men labour hard during the day, unsure of when the next viable option for securing their livelihood may present itself.
These exhausted women then spend their nights struggling to get some rest in limited privacy, whilst continuously worrying about defending their families and themselves from the threats of wild animals, snakes and malaria and dengue-fever carrying vectors.
An increase in the regional temperature of Pakistan is also accompanied by an upsurge in vector-borne diseases.
The preamble to the National Climate Change Policy, 2012 (NCCP) clarifies that it is meant to provide “a comprehensive framework” for action plans aimed at national efforts adaptation and mitigation.
In this pursuit, the third main policy objective stated by the NCCP commendably highlights a “focus on pro-poor gender sensitive adaptation,” which is followed by an entire section dedicated to gender and recognising women as disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Enabling women's choices
Provinces should use the NCCP as a catalyst for mainstreaming problems experienced by women due to climate change, and stress upon the particularly dire impacts of climate change-induced migration on women.
It is pertinent that women be involved in the decision making and implementation processes to develop gender sensitive adaptation strategies for the country. Advocacy for women’s empowerment must also include a specific mandate for climate change affectees.
Post the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) is primarily responsible for formulating and implementing policies that could examine and cater to the vulnerabilities shrouding women in times of disasters.
PDMAs boast Gender and Child Protection Cells to help deal with vulnerable segments in times of disaster or crises, but do not provide any assistance for voluntary migration.
Women are no longer exposed to problems just in case of a disaster, but in fact combat the effects of climate change on a daily basis.
Accepting gender differentials will be crucial to the success of any adaptation plans implemented in the country. Policies formulated by the government should be channelled to safeguard women by first and foremost giving them the option to decide how they want to address the impacts of climate change themselves, instead of leaving them subject to the decision-making powers of men.
If a woman does not wish to migrate, and climate change is inhibiting traditional sources of income, then the state must ensure she has the opportunity to be trained in a new skill she may utilise to earn.
Even something as basic as guaranteeing each far-flung community its own well or water pump will permit women to reclaim their time and options.
The government stands to benefit through maintaining strong coordination with domestic and international NGOs already working within the country on climate change-related issues.
Information collected at a grassroot level is necessary for fine-tuned policies. The unexpected effects of climate change require the dissemination of awareness in local communities, especially for women who are affected the most.
The many nuances of climate change and its non-clement impacts on Pakistan require serious efforts that cannot be substituted by the planting of a billion trees.
Despite recognising the differential vulnerabilities faced by women as a result of climate change, Pakistan’s adaptation efforts must take a holistic approach to overcome cultural restraints and increase livelihood opportunities for the implementation of successful, gender-sensitive adaptation measures.
Climate change has both direct and indirect effects on women as they remain stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, gender inequality and heightened vulnerabilities.
The state has compelling reasons to prioritise the nexus between climate change and women in its adaptation planning. Not only should it be viewed through a legal lens, but the differentiated and inequitable impacts of climate change render the issue a moral and ethical one.
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