At a meeting with women farmers in the Sundarbans in West Bengal, India, they share how climate change is increasing women’s burden and responsibilities on farms and at home as men leave in search of alternative livelihoods. Sundarbans, meaning a beautiful forest, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the vast Bay of Bengal. It is also the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem. Research indicates that South Asia will be particularly vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels. Increasing cyclonic activity and floods in the Bay of Bengal will lead to heightened food and economic insecurity, and a humanitarian crisis in India and Bangladesh.
The existing gender inequalities and discrimination pose a significant additional challenge for women to build their resilience and adapt to a changing climate. Given that climate change is not gender-neutral, social justice funders need to incorporate a gender lens into their strategies and support groups that are promoting women’s leadership in community-based climate action and people-led advocacy movements.
As rural women juggle key life-sustaining roles every day – including gathering wood to keep the kitchen fires alive, sourcing fodder to feed livestock, and collecting drinking water for their families – grantmaking with a gender approach is essential in ensuring their experiences and challenges are taken into consideration in the design and implementation of mitigation and adaption programs.
In a village near Gayadham in the Sundarbans, Kajol Das, a small-scale farmer, shared that she is slowly settling down in a new home.
‘We had to move because our last house was by the river, where floods were a problem’, she said. Kajol had the funds to move away from the river to protect her family and have a secure roof over her head; many farmers have not been that lucky.
Through a Global Greengrants Fund grant, a local women’s group, Maa Durga, is helping Kajol and other women in her village learn to shore up their food security by setting up seed banks. These small repositories of native, saline-, and flood-resistant crops are one step in a long process of experimentation to adapt to a changing climate in a region where floods are expected to get worse and more frequent.
Kajol’s garden has mustard, radish, sorrel, spinach, amaranth, yam and other tubers. She told me that this winter she has not had to buy vegetables from the market.
‘Vegetables are expensive. I am now growing my own produce, which is also safe and free from chemical pesticides. I have added chickens and goats to my homestead, and I am hoping to sell goat manure to supplement my income.’
Grassroots women activists in the global South, including farmer and indigenous networks and movements, are also demanding that their voices, expertise, and priorities are included in climate change policymaking and solutions. Grassroots women activists are also demanding that climate change financing be transparent and responsive to the unique needs and experiences of women and vulnerable communities.
Last but not least, we need our world leaders to respond thoughtfully to the call of small farmers, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk and pastoralists, who are bearing, by far, the greatest burden of a changing climate. Their deep traditional knowledge, innovations and ownership, and consent over climate change adaptation and mitigation processes will play a seminal role in building sustainable, stronger, more resilient communities. Women’s rights groups also believe that eliminating all forms of discrimination against women, securing their human rights, and ensuring equitable access to resources are important measures of resilience that reduce vulnerabilities for women and girls.
‘We are slowly raising our voices’, a farmer in the Sundarbans told me. ‘But we need ongoing support.’
Rucha Chitnis is the South Asia program director of Women’s Earth Alliance, a non-profit that mobilizes resources to grassroots, women-led groups working at the intersection of women’s rights, food sovereignty, and environmental justice. She serves as an advisor to Global Greengrants Fund and recommends grants to support groups in Jharkhand, West Bengal and beyond.