Women in Pakistan are left out of decision-making policies related to Climate Change. — Photo by author

Pakistan’s women struggle to make voices heard in climate change conversations

The impact of climate-induced catastrophes doubles on Pakistani women as they are left out of decision-making policies.
Published November 11, 2023

Forty-year-old beautician, Sonia Arif, a mother of four, is struggling to make ends meet after her husband Arif had to shut his tailoring shop over his inability to pay the monthly rent of Rs40,000.

“I am sick of the yelling that has become a norm in my house for the past two years. The unbearable heat has added to my plight. In my next life, I want to be born as a man,” she said.

A resident of one of the most neglected areas in Karachi, Kausar Niazi Colony, along the Gujjar nala, a stormwater drain, Sonia lost her home in 2021 in a huge demolition drive to remove encroached structures throttling the natural waterway. She and her family had no option but to live in rented accommodation.

The clogged waterway was blamed for urban flooding in 2020, when large parts of Karachi were submerged after bouts of intense monsoon rainfall which Dr Sardar Sarfaraz, chief meteorologist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department, said was a “climate-related catastrophe” due to rise in global temperature.

South Asia is particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change according to the sixth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with the region set to experience more extreme weather conditions, including heatwaves and flash floods in the coming decades, with serious consequences for vulnerable and marginalised populations.

The restricted role and freedom of women in Pakistan has added to their challenges in coping with climate-related extreme events. “Climate change impacts every element of their [women’s] lives: their economic security, marital relationships, and physical well-being,” finds research conducted by Urban Institute in the slums of Delhi, Dhaka, Islamabad and Lahore.

Urban planner Dr Nausheen H Anwar, director of the Karachi Urban Lab, at the Institute of Business Administration, avers with the intersecting roles of race, class and religion on marginalised women who are already burdened by structural dynamics such as poverty, precarious livelihood systems, housing and transportation crises.

“When climate change intersects with these existing vulnerabilities and burdens, we find the woman disproportionately impacted,” she said. However, Dr Anwar said, it was important to recognise and acknowledge that a marginalised man was as exposed to climate impacts, but in “different ways”.

This was endorsed by Dr Arjumand Nizami, country director of Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, a network of Swiss-based development organisations. “Climate change does not differentiate between genders; both women and men are just as likely to be affected by it.

But due to economic, social, political and cultural inequalities, these unevenly felt challenges are getting harder during climate-induced catastrophes,“ said Nizami, who is part of the organisation’s global climate change team.

 Devastating floods, inflation and political instability have pushed hundreds of thousands like Sonia Arif deeper into poverty. — Photo by author
Devastating floods, inflation and political instability have pushed hundreds of thousands like Sonia Arif deeper into poverty. — Photo by author

Regressive rules add to the suffering

The anti-encroachment drive could not have come at a worse time for many of the working class living in informal settlements. Reeling from a devastating flood last year and backbreaking inflation which stood at 27.4 per cent (in August), a depreciating currency (in July the currency fell 6.2pc) and low foreign reserves compounded by political instability, food, gas and fuel prices have shot up pushing thousands like Sonia and Arif deeper into the vortex of poverty.

Rakhi Matan, 35, lives in Karachi’s Shirin Jinnah Colony, and works as a domestic help in the adjoining neighbourhood of Clifton. “A woman’s work is never done,” she rued, saying the only time she got to herself was when she went to bed.

During power cuts, men in her neighbourhood go out of their homes, but women must stay indoors. “We don’t have the luxury to go out; instead, we sit and cook in the dim light of the mobile phone, even if it gets stuffy and hot,” she said.

Few think about clothing and climate change, but it’s a lived reality for women here. “Men can be in their vests and shorts, even take off the vests; while we are forbidden to leave our homes; if we do, we have to drape ourselves in yards of cloth,” grumbled Rahat Shah, 37, mother of 10, living in a three-room rented house in Gulshan-e-Sikandarabad, another informal settlement in Karachi. “Women observe purdah,” said Shah, who belongs to a Pashtun community which expects strict segregation of men and women.

“There is no need for them to go out, we do all the outside chores for them,” said her 22-year-old son, sitting next to Rahat. “It’s not even safe, and men look lewdly,” he added. Out of work, the drug addict son believed that compared to his mother and four sisters, their father, a driver in the port, works the hardest.

“They just do the usual cleaning, cooking, washing,” he said dismissively, admitting no male members helped with the housework. “It’s women’s work,” he shrugged. Once he was out of earshot, his 16-year-old-sister, Shumaila, learning to become an Islamic teacher, whispered that she did not like wearing the burqa. “It’s cumbersome and stifling to walk around in it, I’d prefer covering my head with a dupatta, as it is airier, but I will never be allowed to go out like that,” she said.

“Patriarchy, misogyny, toxic masculinity and repressed sexuality in Pakistani males makes life extremely difficult to be a female in Pakistan, who bear the brunt everywhere, be it urban, semi-urban, rural, mountainous areas, villages or cities,” said Dr Murad Khan, professor of psychiatry at Aga Khan University Hospital’s Brain and Mind Institute. “Nothing has changed — expectations from women, their performance, or the attitude of men,” he said.

“Unending house chores and elderly/childcare is compounded by lack of safety in public spaces which keep women indoors,” said Dr Anwar. Climate-related extreme weather makes it worse.

 Rahat Shah’s room in Gulshan-e-Sikandarabad is like a furnace during summers. — Photo by author
Rahat Shah’s room in Gulshan-e-Sikandarabad is like a furnace during summers. — Photo by author

Coping with extreme weather events

A recent research by the Karachi Urban Lab (KUL) found that over the past 60 years, Karachi’s daytime temperatures have risen by 1.6 degrees Celsius and nighttime by 2.4 degrees Celsius. Dr Anwar connects the city’s expansion, compaction, and densification to this rise in temperature, intersecting with global warming.

Rahat said this year was hotter than ever, and with a long power outage and huge water shortage, the situation did not get better. “We need five canisters of 20 litres (each costs Rs35) a day for my family of 12,” she said, which they use for washing clothes and utensils, and bathing. She cooks for a doctor, earning barely Rs12,000 a month.

Living in congested informal settlements like all these women, where houses are so close to each other, that “you can literally hear each and every conversation of your neighbour,” according to Sonia, and where too many of them live in poorly ventilated homes.

“Our homes turn into infernos in summer,” said Sonia. People’s perception of the difference in indoor and outdoor temperature was noted down in the KUL study that was carried out during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The lack of a proper sewerage system spreads water-borne diseases, especially among children. The IPCC Climate Change 2023 Synthesis Report says human mortality and morbidity as well as climate-related food-borne, water-borne diseases and vector-borne diseases have increased due to increased heat.

“It’s either the fever, or stomach infection,” said 29-year-old Aasia Kamran, mother of three, aged 6 years, 4 years and a 9-month-old baby, living in a one-room quarter in Nayabad, Lyari. Working as a part-time house help but now on a break to take care of the baby, she said: “When they get sick, it means taking off from work for days causing additional stress as our employers get annoyed; fathers never take off from work or care for the children.”

Maria Yaqoob, a 23-year-old student living in the same neighbourhood as Sonia, insisted the role of a woman in a village is easier than those living in shanty towns of Karachi. Not only do village women have open spaces, pointed out Maria, they are self-sufficient.

“They know how to make fuel from dung, carry firewood and water and are adept at running their homes. On the other hand, our lives come to a standstill if we don’t have conveniences like water, gas and electricity,” she said.

For the past two years, both Rakhi and Rahat have started cutting wood from the nearby creek for cooking “like the village women” when “we run out of gas in the cylinder”. This new task has added to their workload, said Rakhi. “It takes me an hour to collect the wood and it will last us just two or three days.” Although it burns her eyes and she uses plastic bags to ignite the fire, knowing well these give out toxic fumes, “but with gas prices getting steeper by the day, I have little choice,” she said.

“The urban women living in informal settlements do not have the skill sets to manage their daily chores, without modern conveniences,” admits Nizami, adding that village women are as much exposed to climate change as their urban counterparts.

Having worked with women in both informal settlements in cities and villages for almost three decades, she said both carried a huge, but different, workload. “But, for both, their work remains invisible and unrecognised,” she said.

While village women are closer to natural resources, they work for free on their family farm. Mismanagement, thefts and leakages in the utilities and a weak governance system have been exacerbating the impact of climate change on women in urban settings. “Coping with climate-induced heatwaves and long power outages and water shortages (both manmade) get amplified,” she said, adding: “These things are a big reason for stress among women, who are not only working at home but also employed outside.”

Added Rahat, “Women have to make sure there is enough water, that the food is cooked, and the house is spotless; how they get all of it done without water and electricity is not a man’s problem.”

Zoha Alvi, an organiser of Aurat March, an annual socio-political demonstration in Pakistani cities, said political parties and public office holders should be made accountable for not carrying out their responsibilities. “They should look at the issue of climate change through the lens of intersectionality that needs to be acknowledged and understood as it adds more layers to this important conversation. All the issues will ultimately affect us severely.”

 Women in Pakistan are left out of decision-making policies related to climate change. — Photo by author
Women in Pakistan are left out of decision-making policies related to climate change. — Photo by author

Mental health not a priority

The IPCC report indicated that “mental health challenges” are associated with increasing temperatures, trauma from extreme events, and loss of livelihoods and culture. “With increasing social, environmental and manmade problems, the stress on women has increased,” said Dr Khan. But there was little evidence, he pointed out, to say conclusively whether the mental health of rural women was worse than their urban counterparts.

Both mental health and climate change are generally low on the government’s list of priorities. “When this happens, then the connection between the two cannot be made by governments, either provincial or national,” said Dr Khan, adding that the governments are engrossed in tiding over other crises — economic, power, political, security.

Dr Sajjad Ahmad, public health specialist at Koohi Goth Women’s Hospital, said that the floods in 2010 and 2022 brought to the fore how climate-induced catastrophes exacerbate women’s problems when the broken-down health centres are washed away.

“The vicious cycle of poverty, lack of education, poor healthcare system and climate change are interlinked, and each exacerbates the other. You cannot take out women’s health and look at it through one lens alone. Poverty combined with illiteracy amplifies health issues for women, especially those who are pregnant.”

Designing city with climate change in mind

Marvi Mazhar, an architect and climate activist, said it is critical to think of ethical land distribution, improving housing affordability and making the city more livable and breathable. “Karachi has been a power project. It’s been developed in isolation, on land-to-land infrastructure rather than zonal, neighbourhood or in a cluster form,” she said.

Yasmeen Lari, 82, Pakistan’s first woman architect, heading the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, has been designing bamboo houses for people living on the front lines of climate change.

Her design philosophy of “zero emissions and zero waste” ensures that the “poor are seen as partners, keeping women in the lead”. Having worked with women for years in rural areas, she says “the same principles, but with a bit of modification, can be applied in informal settlements in Karachi”.

“Our policies, programmes and projects keep little margin for climate-related events,” agreed Dr Noman Ahmed, who heads the Architecture & Management Sciences Department at the NED University of Engineering and Technology, in Karachi. Referring to the Karachi Development Plan 1974-85 as well as several scientific studies thereafter, he said, the administration had been cautioned to keep the periphery of Karachi as pastoral land which was to serve as the food basket for Karachi.

“Sadly, the same territory that was to provide the ecological balance, the city badly requires today, has been transformed into real estate,” said Dr Ahmed, adding that land formations such as natural hills, hillocks and water bodies have either been levelled or reclaimed for commercial development.

Mazhar called for a “democratic demarcation” where the city’s residents are given the “authority to be part of master planning and design development”. Admittedly a radical notion, this green environmental plan requires “rethinking development”.

 Women working outdoors, like this sweeper in Clifton, Karachi, are the most impacted during extreme climate events.— Photo by author
Women working outdoors, like this sweeper in Clifton, Karachi, are the most impacted during extreme climate events.— Photo by author

Dr Ahmed said a cultural and lifestyle intervention was needed so that women in informal settlements were able to access public spaces and parks on a regular basis. “The concept and application of women and children-only bagh [park] is also a good idea,” he suggested, adding that this had found resonance in some planned neighbourhoods of Karachi.

Karachi needs a domestic design system, where economics and maintenance go hand in hand, said Mazhar. This means opting out from the race for the ‘biggest city’ syndrome, she said, and giving women a greater representation on the table when decisions about the city are being made so that they could have a say on effective solutions.

But till that happens, Dr Khan suggested, women of a neighbourhood can get together, exchange notes, support each other, organise and protest. “Their collective voice can make a difference,” he said.

Maria recalls how protests against demolitions in Kausar Niazi and Tayyababad colonies united the women, who experienced the immense difficulties of being homeless at the time when the city had been facing extreme weather events.

“For the first time, we realised there is strength in numbers and we voiced our protest more vociferously,” she said. And “a few hours spent in a lockup” for being part of a peaceful march gave a huge boost to her confidence, she said. “We don’t want men to speak on our behalf, we have a voice and want to be heard,” she said.

Although they failed in stopping the bulldozers from knocking down their homes, “the feeling that we were together during this tragedy was comforting,” said Maria.

The report, Climate equity: Women as agents of change, stresses on gender-sensitive framework for climate-related policies to work towards mitigation and adaptation. Pakistan’s overhauled climate change policies have “called for a reappraisal of women’s vulnerability and gender-sensitive objectives to address women’s differentiated burdens in climate stress”.

Dr Zulfiqar Bhutta, founding director of the Institute for Global Health and Development and the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health at the Aga Khan University, has been researching informal settlements of Karachi and rural districts of Sindh for over two decades, primarily on women and children’s health and nutrition.

According to him, many of the social disadvantages for women are compounded by misplaced social norms, restricted mobility and ingrained gender inequalities. “These can also impact the ability of rural women to adjust their lifestyle during peak summer months. For many of these issues, there is no short-term solution and bringing about a change in mindsets is challenging to say the least. However, we must raise awareness about the impacts of climate change and how to adapt to extreme heat, which are now existential realities,” said Dr Bhutta.

The National Adaptation Plan, launched in July this year, has gender and youth cross-cutting themes, highlighting the integration of vulnerable groups in key decision-making bodies related to climate change such as climate councils, environmental agencies, and advisory committees.

For a country grappling with extreme weather patterns, it is important to focus on the vulnerable population and make women’s voices heard.

This article was originally published as part of a fellowship grant on Question of Cities and has been reproduced with permission.

Header image: Women in Pakistan are left out of decision-making policies related to climate change. — Photo by author