“Climate adaptation strategies reinforce discriminatory gender norms, give women fewer avenues to exercise agency”

The theme of this year’s international women’s day is – an equal world is an enabled world. We tried to imagine a gender-equal world in a rapidly changing climatic context. IPCC lead author Anjal Prakash spoke to Chandni Singh, a researcher and faculty member at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS), Bengaluru, about the gender responsiveness of climate change adaptation and the expression of gender in climate research.

What are the key issues affecting gender relations with respect to climate change?

Climate change is the defining challenge of our times. However, it impacts some areas, communities, and people more than others. There is a significant body of research that has found men and women are differently vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. While earlier research focussed on women being more vulnerable than men, the current discourse has shifted to note that men and women are vulnerable and these vulnerabilities are intersectional, i.e. they depend on who you are (characterised by gender, age, ethnicity, religion), where you’re based (e.g. in a flood-prone area or not), what you do (climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture or not), and what capacities you have (e.g. men often tend to migrate, while women often stay behind in risk-prone areas). Secondly, how we deal with climate change is also sharply gendered. The opportunities available to women are often much lower than men. A lot of adaptation strategies reinforce discriminatory gender norms, and women often have fewer avenues for exercising agency whether within the family or in the broader community. In our own research across climate hotspots in Asia and Africa, we found that current climate change adaptation strategies do not necessarily help improve women’s agency or lead to inclusive adaptation outcomes. These are serious gaps that need to be addressed.

I found that gender is often mentioned cursorily to describe women as more vulnerable to climate change (but) there is no clear plan on how to mainstream gender and equity concerns in our SAPCCs and what gender transformative actions would look like.

What can be done about these – how will the situation change for poor women in India who are at the receiving end of climate change?

There are several ways to bring about change. One is to mainstream gender concerns of both women and men in climate change planning and implementation. In an ongoing review of State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCC) in India that I have undertaken, I found that gender is often mentioned cursorily to describe women as more vulnerable to climate change. There is no clear plan on how to mainstream gender and equity concerns in our SAPCCs and what gender transformative actions would look like. Our research has shown that having a bedrock of inclusive development is essential to effective adaptation to climate change.

This would mean that basic development goals such as women’s education, providing a safe working environment and opportunities to diversify livelihoods, or providing social safety nets, such as crèche care for migrant women workers, would go a long way to improve capacities and climate-proof families, both men and women. Another important yet underreported part of the equation is changing social norms. It is important to understand how changing aspirations and the livelihood of young men have implications for how households manage risk, including climatic risks. There are no easy solutions here, but having policies and programmes that tackle gender discrimination systemically is important. 

As a young professional working on the issue, what are the challenges you face – personally and professionally?

I have had great mentors, both men and women, throughout my research career. However, as a woman, I do face certain barriers that my male colleagues may not.  For example, when interacting with senior male officials, either government or non-government, a younger woman’s opinions and questions are often not considered worth responding to. I tend to interact with such people respectfully and firmly, but this remains an uphill battle. Also, as a woman, it is aggravating to repeatedly be expected to take on supporting roles (e.g. organising meetings, taking notes) without attention being paid to division of labour amongst all team members. This has improved over time and as I have moved on to leading projects of my own, I am particularly careful to divide duties between my male and female research assistants equally.

What advice would you give to young women who want to work in this field?

Choose mentors well, work hard on your research, and build your circle of supportive peers. If you can’t find champions in your own field, develop your research and become that champion. I’d like to direct readers to an excellent article by Dr Veena Srinivasan that articulates my thinking on advice to women researchers.  She offers three pieces of advice – be excellent (in your work), demand representation (on panels, in workspaces, at meetings), and seek mentoring and coaching (to deal with low-grade hostility). I think these are great rules to live by for women and men. In my own research and life, I listen to advice from my mother, who is a single parent and an exceptional mentor, work hard and practice empathy. I’d like to think a world with more women researchers would shift the focus from individual achievement and competition to rewarding empathy and community.