07 Jun 2019 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Women as climate action ambassadors in coastal districts of India’s Odisha State

Photo by Gender and Water Alliance

People in the coastal districts of the eastern Indian state of Odisha are increasingly suffering from the effects of climate change. Most households in the area are dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods from fishing, forest foraging and paddy cultivation. Despite the area’s past high productivity in agriculture and fisheries, population pressure and a breakdown in weather patterns have inflicted serious damage on coastal ecosystems and the well-being of the local population, pushing many rural households below the poverty line.

But men and women have not been equally affected by the changes. Unsurprisingly, a study by a local non-governmental organization, the Regional Centre for Development Cooperation, has shown that structural inequality between women and men—further deepened by wealth status, ethnicity, age and location—meant that poor women, children, the elderly and disabled were the worst affected by the climate crisis and natural disasters.

In particular, women were found to be more exposed to social tensions, malnutrition and increased workload.

Three ways women are affected differently by the climate emergency

While both women and men lose income from subsistence farming and agricultural labour due to increasing salinity of land and water, their coping mechanisms are quite different. Men leave the village to find seasonal work, but women stay behind, taking on additional income-generating activities, along with their overfull packet of domestic and care-related tasks. The absence of the adult male also puts them at a greater risk of sexual harassment.

Theatre and dance are used to raise awareness of gender issues in Brahmansahi Kendrapara. Photo by RCDC Odisha

Because of waterlogging and loss of flora and mangrove forests, women also have to travel further to find drinking water and forage for fuel, fodder and other forest products which earn them income. Their foray into the forest exposes them to animal attacks and fuels conflicts with forest officers.

Finally, women in the area were found to have nutritional deficiencies as they replaced nutritious traditional foods with cash crops such as hybrid rice, maize and cotton.

Tackling inequality at its roots

As a result of the study, the Regional Centre for Development Cooperation took steps to ensure that women and the poorest groups are no longer left behind in the community-based management and decision-making processes.

As a first step, local committees were formed with an equal number of local women and men.

A task force for disaster response was established, consisting of an equal number of women and men trained in early warning, search and rescue, first aid, water and sanitation, and shelter management.

Women learn First Aid, which helps save lives and also empowers them. Photo by: RCDC Odisha

Experts in low-input organic farming helped with the creation of organic homestead gardens, providing local seeds and helping in the production of organic manure and bio-pesticides.

The Regional Centre then helped set up “floating gardens”—a micro-farm made by using a bamboo framework and a culture bed with local materials. The innovation was designed with women-headed and landless households in mind, to allow them to grow food and generate income during the lean period.

Preparing organic inputs for a kitchen garden. Photo by:  RCDC Odisha

These innovations were followed by the introduction of fuel-efficient cooking stoves and training on assessing climate change risks, inclusive and gender-responsive community consultations, and empowerment of women and other marginalized people in the community. Adolescent girls responded enthusiastically to these trainings.

The Odisha study reveals how climate change deepens existing gender inequality and further perpetuates it by limiting the weakest groups’ access to information, relief, technology and skills to influence climate change policy and actions. In most coastal villages, women have very limited decision-making power and hardly participate in the community planning process.

“There is now increasing recognition that sustainable and integrated marine and coastal ecosystem management requires gender-sensitive and gender-responsive planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation at project, policy and grassroots level,” says UN Environment coastal and marine ecosystems expert Shuang Zhu.

Focus on the plight or coastal women

The focus on gender issues and livelihoods in Odisha is one of three case studies highlighted in a new UN Environment report titled Gender Mainstreaming in the Management of the Marine and Coastal Ecosystems. UN Environment is introducing the case studies at an event in New York organized by the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. The event is timed to coincide with World Oceans Day on 8 June 2019, and its theme of “Gender and the Ocean”.

For further information, please contact Shuang Zhu