The Intersection of Climate Change and Gender Equality in South Asia
Chihiro Aita and Arsalan Ahmed assess how climate change has exacerbated gender inequality in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh and consider actionable steps that can be taken to develop inclusive and equitable responses.
The global climate crisis has exacerbated gender inequality around the world. Women are often more vulnerable than men to climatic variability and extremes based on a variety of factors, including socially constructed roles and responsibilities, limited access to and control over resources, muted voices in decision-making, restricted rights, and limited access to education. All these factors contribute to preventing women from standing up against climate catastrophes on their own. Poor women are particularly at risk from environmental stresses caused by the increased frequency and intensity of climate-induced droughts, floods, heatwaves, deforestation, and the accompanying scarcity of natural resources, given that they have access to even fewer opportunities and resources.
These issues are particularly relevant in South Asia. The region has some of the world’s most densely populated areas and spans climate corridors that often create devastating storms. The pandemic and the resulting economic fallout of the past few years have only exacerbated the regressive effects of gender equality in South Asia overall.
To better understand the impacts of climate change on women, it is important to acknowledge the difficulties women in South Asia are already facing. Analyzing cultural gender roles and women’s position in politics, the workplace, and society provides a basis for future programs that might bring stability to women facing threats to their livelihoods from climate change. There is a strong need for climate adaptation and mitigation strategies at the macro and micro levels to include gender-sensitive planning that takes into consideration practical gender needs (i.e., food, water, fuel, healthcare, and housing) as well as strategic gender needs (i.e., education, power and control over resources, and means of production) that will promote greater gender equality.
This commentary assesses some of the core considerations in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh to improve understanding of these issues and produce actionable steps to develop inclusive and equitable responses to climate change and natural disasters in South Asia. It also considers the need for enhanced international cooperation within the region in advance of the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), to be held in November.
Gender inequality and discrimination against women and girls are a pervasive and deeply rooted phenomenon within Indian society, as noted by the United Nations University. Despite rapid rates of economic growth over the past decade, India’s progress toward gender equality—measured by rankings such as the Gender Development Index—has been disappointing. Female labor force participation has declined significantly even as GDP has grown by 6%.
As India develops its own net-zero climate agenda, adding momentum to its green energy transition and sustainable agricultural practices, the inclusion of more women in climate work becomes increasingly critical for its future. According to PwC India and the UN Global Compact Network India, preconceived cultural notions still prevent women in India from being part of mainstream farming practices or emerging climate start-ups. In the 2018 Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs, India ranked 52 out of 57 countries in terms of the ability of women entrepreneurs to capitalize on the opportunities offered by their local environments.
One positive trend is that local projects that aim to close gender gaps while tackling climate change have seen some progress. For example, TANs is a regional civil society organization that has helped design and develop the Bhungroo irrigation technology that supports farming in both dry and wet seasons by both harvesting and storing water for irrigation. The program identifies and trains local women in the uptake and adoption process of this technology, thereby providing rural women access to a productive asset and increasing their participation in decision-making processes. A separate project was conducted in 2020. An international nonprofit organization working on food security facilitated a women-led project to help female farmers cope with growing food insecurity. Through farm-oriented micro projects in certain vulnerable and malnourished areas across the state of Odisha, the project addressed preconceived notions that prevented women from taking part in mainstream farming practices. This initiative also supported women self-help groups and pushed female farmers to promote climate-friendly agricultural practices.
In Sri Lanka, gendered tracks within education and the job market continue to create environments for a mismatch between women’s skills and the demand for their labor. This is rooted in how university education, often pursued by women, is not a primary requirement for jobs in the private sector, which places a much higher premium on technical and vocational skills that are often pursued by men.
Further, gender discrimination and bias affect women in the job search, hiring, and promotion processes. A preference for men over women is especially prevalent at the managerial and skilled-worker levels. This prevents companies from developing a pipeline for female talent that could be used to fill managerial positions and board vacancies. The lack of female representation in Sri Lanka’s business landscape is thus primarily caused by the multiple barriers preventing qualified women from advancing into upper-level positions.
With worsening climate change, Sri Lanka will suffer from increased droughts that disproportionately affect women. According to a study by the UN Development Programme, most rural women carry the responsibility of securing food, water, and energy for their family’s daily use. During times of crisis such as natural disasters or difficult droughts, women are forced to take on additional measures for daily necessities. In the case of Sri Lanka, the country suffers from frequent droughts with severe effects in dry zone areas in the northern and eastern parts of the country. During these times, rural women must travel great distances to access clean water sources, giving them further incentive to not take on additional jobs or work. The patterns of these droughts also shift and worsen due to climate change, making it harder for women to take on work during the dry and wet seasons. Given these factors, rural women often cannot find the time to earn an income from work or education.
One promising development is the Jalavahini Program. The program introduces rural women leaders to climate change adaptation and disaster risk resilience, enhanced food security through eco-friendly agriculture and nontoxic home gardening, and the use of modern and appropriate water conservation and agriculture technologies. As a result, the project builds a network of women water professionals and transforms them into local stewards of community-level climate change adaptation. More such programs, however, are needed to tackle the dual threats of climate change and gender inequality within Sri Lanka.
Nepal is no exception to the reality that in South Asia women are often confined to roles within the home. According to the Kitakyushu Forum on Asian Women, only 22% of working-age women in Nepal are employed, resulting in many women taking on most household burdens. Women typically marry early and are undereducated. Yet even those who can find work face gender-based discrimination and bias when searching for employment, navigating the hiring process, and seeking promotions.
Female labor grows exponentially during times of crisis, especially during climate-induced natural disasters where women must manage the emotional, physical, and psychological strains for themselves and their families. For example, during and in the aftermath of natural disasters and other crises in Nepal, the education and health needs of women are often the first to be cut. According to CARE Nepal, between 2000 and 2016, when Nepal faced increasingly violent climate-related disasters, women tended to not address their health concerns, resulting in higher rates of illness and disease. As women in Nepal are forced to focus on caretaking of others in the wake of climate catastrophes, their personal health conditions are often overlooked, leaving them physically and psychologically vulnerable.
To improve women’s livelihoods and amplify their voices in environmental management, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization worked with Nepal’s Churia region on an ecosystem restoration plan to protect both the upstream and downstream areas of its river systems from the effects of climate change. As part of this project, farmer field schools were set up in the most vulnerable areas around the rivers to train both female and male farmers from community-based organizations on climate-resilient agricultural techniques, who will then train other farming households. The climate resiliency measures included lessons on how to reduce loss and damage from landslides by stabilizing slopes and improving livestock practices. Such programs can equip Nepalese women with technical skills and boost their confidence in leading their communities.
In Bangladesh, women continue to have more limited access than men to vital productive resources, including land, housing, and technology. This leads to women having limited access to information and financial resources, which further translates to insufficient financial literacy. Another element of the nation’s gender inequality is the uneven burden of care work that constrains women’s participation in public life and in the workplace, especially since such work is often underpaid and considered low status. Even if Bangladeshi women do find employment, their career options are often severely limited. The most common industries in which women find work are agriculture, community services, and manufacturing.
From a climate perspective, Bangladesh has strong potential for growth in renewable energy implementation. Currently, biomass fuels are the main source of cooking energy in the country, but this method holds significant health risks, particularly for women who perform most household chores. Clean and affordable renewable energy could contribute to their empowerment and development through improved health, better access to education, and greater livelihood opportunities. However, there remain challenges, such as the traditional domination of the energy sector by men with technical and engineering education considered unsuitable for women. Few women rise to senior levels within the sector, which prevents the inclusion of gender perspectives within decision-making.
Although government agencies that are responsible for sustainable power generation and distribution of energy that prioritize women’s empowerment and development needs still have room for improvement, progress has already been made in mainstreaming gender equality in these sectors. For example, the Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board has conducted gender analysis and involved women technicians in renewable energy initiatives. Furthermore, women’s growing involvement in the Community Biogas Project of the Rural Development Academy is a promising initiative.
In addition to more opportunities for women in the energy sector, what is often left out of discussions on climate change and disaster management is how women can fill in the gaps for the healthcare and the capacity training needed to ensure that communities with fewer resources receive sufficient medical care. This is one area among many on which BRAC, a notable NGO in Bangladesh, has focused. As South Asian countries consider climate adaptation policies, they must develop disaster management strategies with such local projects focused on female empowerment to minimize the damage caused by a warming climate on an already vulnerable population.
POLICY OPTIONS TO EMPOWER WOMEN IN SOUTH ASIA’S CLIMATE SECTOR
The preceding discussion of gender issues in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh provides insight into how societies can take inclusive climate action that improves women’s livelihoods in South Asia. In addition to existing attempts to improve the region’s climate resilience, special attention must be paid to achieve this goal through involving more female leadership at the local level.
Another crucial step is engagement with civil society organizations and the private sector to enhance accountability and visibility of their climate initiatives involving women. Transparency for climate-related commitments and gender inclusivity, monitored by developmental organizations at the national, state, regional, and community levels, is essential in this process. Human rights due diligence, engagement of climate-vulnerable communities in scalable initiatives, and low-carbon development across supply chains of corporates and financial firms are all initiatives that have the potential to support women-led and -owned sustainable practices and will ultimately be of immense value for building wider societal resilience.
Further, it is important to acknowledge that the nature of the relationship between climate change and gender inequality is inherently symbiotic—in the sense that they will continue to influence and be influenced by a host of factors like gender-based violence, women’s economic and educational opportunities or the lack thereof, and gendered cultural contexts. Thus, ending the vicious cycle of worsening climate change exacerbating women’s futures will require a holistic approach to identify and address the various challenges that women face within different contexts.
Below are several policy options for advancing such inclusive climate action:
- Facilitate professional networking and mentorship opportunities for women working in the climate sector in South Asia, including in academia, government, and the private sector, potentially through initiatives between the United States and regional countries.
- Increase career programs oriented toward training women in both traditionally male-dominated (e.g., energy, finance, and agriculture) and female-dominated (e.g., caretaking and cooking) sectors.
- Improve women’s overall access to jobs by providing comprehensive benefits such as childcare, flexible hours, and health insurance.
- Improve women’s everyday access to data, land, and other forms of assets.
- Tie future research analyses to the three tenants of gender studies: health, education, and economic opportunities.
The list of challenges South Asian women encounter in the face of climate change and gender inequality, as examined in this commentary, is far from comprehensive. There are a host of other factors affecting the intersection of these dual threats, and the situation calls for continued monitoring and assessment based on local voices and experiences.
One thing that is known for certain is that unless drastic action is taken to combat the climate crisis, its negative impacts will affect women and vulnerable communities the hardest. Ensuring that women across South Asia have the tools to become financially independent empowers them and their communities to become resilient against climate disasters. The current outlook for women’s employment opportunities and working environment is slowly improving throughout the region. However, significant commitments to inclusive climate action will be needed to advance the role of women in environmental decision-making while simultaneously protecting the progress female leaders have made thus far from the impending effects of future climate disasters.
Such commitments can be made at COP27 in November by taking tangible steps to deliver the $100 billion promised by richer nations in 2009, particularly to support women in regions like South Asia that are most affected by climate change. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research proposes that such financial resources partly be used to increase rural women’s access to greater agricultural services in less developed economies, such as weather and climate information, technology, and credit to reduce climate vulnerability.18 Ultimately, it is not enough for higher-income countries to simply deliver the funding they promised to developing countries. Such investments should be strategically directed to address and reduce the gendered impacts of a warming climate. Ahead of this year’s conference, leaders must be prepared to address such concerns and be held accountable for their decisions.
Chihiro Aita is a Project Associate with the Energy and Environmental Affairs team at NBR.
Arsalan Ahmed was an intern with the Energy and Environmental Affairs team at NBR.
 Jagriti Kher and Savita Aggarwal, “Gender Analysis Approach to Analyzing Gender Differentiated Impacts of Coping Strategies to Climate Change,” in Handbook of Climate Change Resilience, ed. Walter Leal Filho (Cham: Springer International, 2019), 2097–124.
 “IFC’s Work on Gender in South Asia,” International Finance Corporation, https://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/region__ext_content/ifc_external_corporate_site/south+asia/priorities/gender_in_southasia.
 Smriti Sharma, “Achieving Gender Equality in India: What Works, and What Doesn’t,” United Nations University, December 1, 2016, https://unu.edu/publications/articles/achieving-gender-equality-in-india-what-works-and-what-doesnt.html.
 “Gender Equality in Climate Action: Women at the Core,” PwC India and UN Global Compact Network India, March 2022, https://www.pwc.in/assets/pdfs/consulting/esg/gender-equality-in-climate-action.pdf.
 “Realizing Sustainability through Diversity: The Case for Gender Diversity Among Sri Lanka’s Business Leadership,” International Finance Corporation, 2019, https://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/c6cbb7b1-54e5-44f1-893f-6deae41440dd/The_Case_Gender_Diversity_Among_Sri_Lanka_Business_Leadership.pdf?MOD=AJPERES.
 Anuradha Withanachchi, “Despite All Odds: Climate Resilient Women in Sri Lanka,” UN Development Programme, March 19, 2019, https://www.adaptation-undp.org/despite-all-odds-climate-resilient-women-sri-lanka.
 “Empowering Women Community Leaders in Rural Sri Lanka in Climate Resilient Low-Tech Water Resource Management,” Women Gender Constituency, https://womengenderclimate.org/gjc_solutions/empowering-women-community-leaders-in-rural-sri-lanka-in-climate-resilient-low-tech-water-resource-management.
 CARE Nepal, “Rapid Gender Analysis Report on COVID-19 Nepal,” 2020, https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/sites/default/files/Field%20Office%20ESEAsia/Docs/Publications/2020/11/np-Rapid-Gender-Analysis-on-COVID-19-Nepal-2020-EN.pdf.
 “Climate Action to Close the Gender Gap in Nepal,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, August 3, 2022, https://www.fao.org/gcf/news-and-events/news-detail/climate-action-to-close-the-gender-gap-in-nepal/en.
 Asian Development Bank, Bangladesh Gender Equality Diagnostic of Selected Sectors (Manila, Philippines: ADB, 2017), https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/institutional-document/395641/bangladesh-gender-equality-diagnostic.pdf.
 Nicoline de Haan, “How COP27 Can Deliver Climate Justice for Rural Women,” Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, March 8, 2022, https://gender.cgiar.org/news/how-cop27-can-deliver-climate-justice-rural-women.