Saturday May 28, 2022

Gender and climate change

December 20, 2018

A few years ago, celebrated Indian film director Krishnendu Bose directed a documentary, ‘The Forgotten Women in India’s Climate Plans’. The film, whilst depicting the unremitting struggle of rural women in India against the adverse effects of climate change amidst acute poverty and deep-seated social impediments, called upon Indian lawmakers to involve women in the formulation and implementation of climate change laws, policies and programmes.

Climate change is affecting weather patterns and causing glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise. It has increased the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts, storms and landslides, triggering frequent and widespread demolition of life, property and business. Almost everyone is affected, but it causes more harm to the vulnerable population.

Even among the vulnerable, particularly in developing countries, it is women who are particularly at risk. As per the UNDP, when a natural disaster strikes, the risk of death is 14 times higher for women. For instance, women accounted for 61 percent of fatalities caused by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, 70–80 percent in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and 91 percent in the 1991 Bangladesh Cyclone.

Likewise, the effects of climate change are devastating in Pakistan given the country’s over-dependence on the environment for basic subsistence and its powerlessness to absorb the adverse shocks of climate change. The majority of Pakistan’s population lives along the Indus River which is susceptible to serious flooding in the summer; the 2010 floods alone displaced 7.2 million people including 713,000 women. Women in Pakistan, chiefly those living in the rural areas, depend on a conducive environment and favourable climate for survival as most of them are employed in agriculture and livestock sectors. Almost all of them lack the capacity to cope with climate change. This inability is not biological, but a product of deeply imbedded patriarchal barriers that limit women’s access to natural resources.

For women – who already face poverty and marginalisation perpetuated by minimal landholdings, rising familial burdens, parochial mindsets and religious restrictions – climate change puts them at a further disadvantage. Climate change jeopardises their already limited access to natural resources and damagingly affects them in various ways. For instance, the floods and droughts caused by climate change destroy their crops and livestock. Moreover, water scarcity also compels women to travel miles to fetch water for daily household usage. Climate change in Pakistan has also led to lower wages for women, spread of contagious diseases and increase in incidents of domestic violence, assaults, rapes and women trafficking.

Despite the fact that women in Pakistan are on the receiving end, our climate change laws and policies completely fail to take into account the gender perspective. Although the ‘Climate Change Policy, 2012’ discusses climate change impact on women, its practical manifestation is yet to be seen. Additionally, the Paris Agreement 2015, which binds Pakistan to take country-wide gender responsive measures to bolster women’s resilience to climate change, exists only in theory. The Climate Change Act 2017, in addition to usurping the mandate of the provinces – as guaranteed by the 18th Amendment, addresses the effect of climate change on women only in section 8(3) (a) and that too superficially and without giving a clear road map.

Incontrovertibly, the principle of gender equality is a magnificent cornerstone of the constitution of Pakistan. Article 25 (1) & (2) of the constitution provide that all citizens are equal before law and there should be no discrimination on the basis of gender. To further reinforce the principle of women empowerment, the framers of the constitution embedded section (3) in Article 25, which authorises special provisions for the protection of women. Article 25 (3), anchored under the exclusive notion of protective discrimination, can be considered as “a covenant for affirmative action”. However, despite such clear constitutional obligations, the state has so far miserably failed to enact any law providing specifically for the protection of women against privations caused by climate change.

Unquestionably, women stand on the frontline of climate change; our legal framework needs to be restructured to include the gender dimension in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. The state needs to enact special laws to create the conditions and infrastructure that are necessary in order to cope with or neutralise the devastating effects of climate change on women. Additionally, the deep-rooted social, economic and political barriers that restrain women’s coping capacity need to be effectively addressed.

The state also needs to invest in food security, capacity building, modern agricultural practices, social protection programmes, technical and vocational skills. At the moment, our laws and policies in relation to climate change are derisory as gender participation in their formulation and execution is almost non-existent. It is a matter of immense shame that out of the officials working in the Ministry of Climate Change, very few are women – meaning women are absent in climate change policy formulation and enforcement.

It has to be understood that Pakistan’s women can only become climate change resilient if they themselves become part of the solution.

The writer is a Lahore-based advocate of the high court.