Climate change, if unchecked, could push about 158 million more women and girls into poverty by 2050, according to a report, Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The gender snapshot 2023, launched last week. Yet, in last year’s United Nations global conference on climate change, COP27, there were only seven women leaders among 110 attendees. Ahead of the upcoming COP28 in November, climate activists in India are demanding long-deserved inclusion in climate action, especially for rural women.
“For years, reports and studies have shown that women are disproportionately affected by climate change. But in urban narratives of India and the global north, women, specifically rural women, are only talked about in terms of being victims and beneficiaries, not as the powerful allies that they can be,” says Divya Hedge, a climate action entrepreneur who is part of the recently launched Women Climate Collective (WCC), an online community advocating for women-inclusive climate action in India.
Even when awareness programs reach rural areas, there is a tendency to look at the issues through an urban lens and communicate in a language that is not familiar to them, Hedge points out.
It’s not warnings about global warming of 1.5°C or photos of polar bears on melting glaciers that people in villages connect with. They look at it as livelihoods; droughts, migration, and flooding that directly affect their food and shelter needs. Even in villages, it’s women who feel the most impact as they bear a disproportionate responsibility for arranging food and water.
“I work with women in coastal regions who know now there is an equal amount of plastic and fish in the ocean. It’s their cooperatives that sell the fish so they are aware of climate change’s effect on the quality and quantity. The first step is to understand what awareness can also look like. Then comes their involvement in climate mitigation efforts. Equipping them with skills that generate income while also helping the environment should be the focus,” Hegde says.
For instance, through Baeru, her waste management initiative based in coastal Karnataka, Hegde teaches women collection, segregation, upcycling and recycling of ocean waste that also bolsters their income. They also raise awareness about the circular economy by linking awareness campaigns to people’s roots. For instance, as grandmothers often reuse clothes as mops or carry a mud pot to the fish market instead of using plastic bags, Hegde ran a campaign, Listen to Nim Ajji (Listen to your grandmother). Awareness and action are also about involving women by speaking in their language.
It’s this active participation of women in climate action that another WCC-associated climate activist Varsha Raikwar, who lives in the Niwari district of Bundelkhand, has also been emphasising.
Raikwar has been working as a radio jockey at Radio Bundelkhand 90.4 since 2017, where she runs a program, Shubh Kal, focused on climate change awareness in villages. With more than five lakh listeners from 150 villages around Bundelkhand, Raikwar has been harnessing the power of the community to drive change in the villages in and around Bundelkhand. From reporting on the effects of climate change on various aspects of daily life such as women’s health, to talking to groups of women about rainwater harvesting and kitchen gardening, Raikwar’s focus is often the women in the villages.
“They have seen lakes drying up, pollution from nearby factories, and how low crop yield affects their livelihoods. What they need is for someone to sit and tell them what they can do. They are not included in gram sabhas and they often don’t even know it’s happening. Their absence is forced. But without the women, who are the centre of families in our society, how can climate action be properly implemented?” Raikwar says.
One of the primary ways of exclusion, from gram sabhas and panchayats, has to become a way of inclusion. It’s through inclusion in politics and policymaking that women’s voices can be heard in decision-making, Hegde says. It’s important to involve women in the intersection of climate adaptation, mitigation and resilience. Involving more women in addressing the political roots of exclusion is an important way forward.
Both Raikwar and Hedge emphasise that the narrative around rural women needs to change. Instead of clubbing them together with children and labelling them as vulnerable groups, it's important to see them as a separate group of allies whose knowledge and skills are pivotal to climate action initiatives.