Nepali women doubly burdened by climate change

Agriculture expert Yamuna Ghale was on a research visit to Dolakha district when she heard the women livestock farmers complain that their goats had weak legs and could not stand properly. She then learnt that the women had noticed new kinds of grass in their neighborhood which they had been feeding their livestock.

Ghale, who is a member of the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), immediately made the connection — this was an invasive species of grass that was growing in the mountains because of global warming, and was not good for livestocks.

"Commercial farming is mostly done by men, and such farmers tend to source commercial feed or grass for their livestock, but women farmers keep a few animals at home. They feed these animals whatever they can find in the vicinity,” Ghale explained. “This is one of the examples of how climate change has a differential impact on women."

Recent evidence shows not only that the mountains are warming faster than the global average, but  rural women in Nepal are more vulnerable to the changes brought by the climate crisis. However, Nepal's state policies related to climate adaptation do not acknowledge this disproportionate impact. And even when they do, they do not offer solutions.

The Ministry of Forests and Environment has put together a draft of a Gender and Social Inclusion (GESI) and Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, but it is yet to be implemented. Experts say that the biggest gap lies in putting those policies into action.

Due to rising water scarcity, women need to travel farther to fetch water. According to Nepal Labour Force Survey 2017/18, 61% women are involved in subsistence farming, whereas only 47% of men are.  Women also have limited access to timely weather forecast information which affects their options for farming, they lack independent sources of income, and may be unable to access credit.

Although women carry out most of the agricultural work, very few women own the land they farm. This reduces their decision-making capacity, even though high outmigration of men has increased their responsibility. Women are engaged in labour intensive activities like collecting water, firewood, fodder for animals, and farming.

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Women in mountain communities find that adapting to climate change is even more challenging. There are new kinds of pests and weeds, and the soil is harder, malaria and other vector-borne diseases are moving up the mountains. The frequency of floods and landslides have also increased, leading to job and food insecurity.

"The most affected are the poorest women in the most remote mountains because they don’t have access to resources, information, or have the skills to adapt. This makes them more vulnerable and are disproportionately affected because of inequalities in the distribution of rights, assets, resources and power," says Chanda Gurung Goodrich, climate and gender expert at ICIMOD.

Out of Nepal’s seven policies related to climate change, only three acknowledge gender issues, with only one of them suggesting adaptation measures specifically targeted at women. In fact, Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Management in Agriculture is the only policy to have integrated gender across key areas. Nepal's latest climate change policy also acknowledges women as a vulnerable group, is lacking in action plans for implementation.

The most frequent interventions include rainwater harvesting, seed banks, altering time of plantation, soil conservation and watershed management, plastic tunnels, agricultural subsidies, reuse of agricultural residue and dung for fuel.

"We made a point to include community seed banks to conserve local seeds in the Seed Vision Policy, so that community members can exchange seeds and plant a variety of them," says MP Bimala Rai Poudyal, adding that the more diverse crops a farmer plants, the more resilient she is to climate change, because if one crop fails, then another survives.

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While these interventions support women in income generation and livelihood, more needs to be done to improve women's access to decision making. Many women are not able to grasp technical aspects of climate change related communications because they are less educated than men.

Researchers have found that capacity building activities are more effective when they are specific to the needs of women. When training and information is simplified, women are able to make better decisions, and women's access to credits, information, and insurance increases their resilience.

Creating specific funds for women and strengthening networks of local women have been helpful. Innovations in technology are another widely felt need. For instance, with the high outmigration of men, it is mostly women who have to use heavy farm equipment.

"The Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare should take the lead in creating a compulsory response which other ministries can respond to. The plans and projects of local levels should be reconciled to this federal policy. That will enable us to see women as agents of economic change and not merely as victims," says Ghale.

Until 2001, only 10.6% of women in Nepal owned land. After the Nepal government offered 25-50% tax breaks for women owning land, the percentage rose to 19.6% in the 2011 census. Also, according to the 2018 Civil Code, women have equal rights to parental property. These provisions are expected to aid government strategy to increase female land ownership to 50% by 2035.

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Nepal's Gender Mainstreaming Strategy also has a policy of increasing women's participation to 50% in all agricultural production related interventions, institutions, and organizations. The Community Forestry Guidelines states that half of its executive committee members should comprise women.

The policy gaps identified by experts may be filled in the near future, as the Ministry of Forests and Environment has come up with a draft for an inclusive and gender-sensitive Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, which is to be approved by the end of December 2020.

Says Radha Wagle, joint secretary at Ministry of Forests and Environment: "Our challenge lies in implementation of these well-intentioned policies. For example, even today it is a challenge to make people understand that climate change has differential impacts. If the temperature rises by 1 degree, how can it affect men and women differently?"

Sewa Bhattarai is a consultant for the Road to COP26 Project, which is funded by FCDO and implemented by the British Council.