The double burden of climate and Covid

British Ambassador to Nepal Nicola Pollitt. Photos: MONIKA DEUPALA

British ambassador to Nepal Nicola Pollitt arrived in Nepal 15 months ago, and much of her time here has been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic. She spoke to Nepali Times this week about dealing simultaneously with Covid-19 and the climate crisis, girls’ education and women leaders, and the UK’s commitment to the COVAX vaccine initiative. Excerpts:

Nepali Times: How has your journey as a diplomat been, and the challenge you had to face to reach this point?

Nicola Pollitt: I have been in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for 18 years, but when I started I hadn’t envisioned being an ambassador. However, it seemed like an interesting career and one, which had an international outlook.

I took up the jobs that came my way and over time they lead me to be here in Nepal as the ambassador, which is a huge privilege. And despite the challenges of coronavirus, which has dominated most of my time here so far, it’s been fascinating and I’m hoping to have many more interesting chances to explore the country over the next year or two.

What are the elements that contribute to women’s empowerment, and ensure that we have strong women leaders?

Education is the foundation of women’s empowerment, if girls don’t have a good education, they are never going to have the confidence or opportunities to make their own decisions and choices as their male counterparts might have. But building on that is a range of other things such as women's employment and breaking gender stereotypes.

We have seen that countries led by women have done better in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. New Zealand and Finland come to mind. What is it that women bring to governance that makes them more effective leaders?

Women bring a different perspective and one that has been built on their own experience, in many cases, they have had to overcome challenges that perhaps others don’t face. That is not to say that women leaders are better, but the way they interact with other leaders and their teams can sometimes offer different ways through problems. And I think that balance, that range of perspective is really important.

Women leaders seen, but not heard, Shristi Karki

How is the UK working on gender equity with development partners in Nepal?

We spend 90% of our funds on gender equality in Nepal, not through programs specifically designed to support gender but by integrating its elements on all our projects. For example, we had a road-building Rural Access Program in Jumla where 50% of the workers were women and 90% of them told us it was their first experience of paid employment.

The UK is also supporting women in different sectors to break gender stereotypes, such as our work in earthquake reconstruction where we trained female masons and through our Skills for Employment Program, in industry and manufacturing, where we are beginning to see women take leadership roles, paving the way for many more to follow. We are also supporting women’s access to finance to fund small businesses.

We also do a lot of work on girls’ education, in particular that of marginalised communities who otherwise might not have such access.

Another area of focus is violence against women. We have seen the instance of domestic violence increase through the Covid pandemic as people have been locked down. We have been raising awareness among the police who have to investigate cases and hospitals where victims come for treatment. Similarly, we are monitoring data through surveys about people’s perceptions on what is acceptable and what is not and initiating conversations around the topic.

Would you say that women are disproportionately more affected by the climate crisis in the Himalaya?

There is good evidence that women are more affected by climate change. Over 60% of women in Nepal work in agriculture, which is vulnerable to weather conditions. Women in rural areas also gather firewood or collect water but as water sources dry up, they are forced to walk much further.

But the reverse is also true. If Nepal moves towards clean energy, women won’t need to gather firewood or suffer through indoor pollution due to cooking. Electricity and the Internet at homes open up opportunities for employment and education. Climate change is affecting them, but we can do more to support Nepal through green recovery into green growth with positive impacts also for women.

Nepali women doubly burdened by climate change, Sewa Bhattarai

How can women more actively participate addressing the impacts of climate change?

Women are less confident and less willing to voice their concerns, and through our climate programs we are supporting them so that they are heard. All of this comes back to women's empowerment, giving them a platform and opportunities to lead in the climate space. 

The UK has been supporting the COVAX initiative. When do you expect the rest of the doses to arrive in Nepal? 

Unfortunately, I don’t know when the next batch of vaccines under the COVAX initiative is arriving in Nepal. But I do know that there is a lot of work going on to ease the pressure on the supply because the problem is not the funding but the supply of vaccines globally. And there are conversations, which we are a leading part of in the WHO in Geneva, about how to open up manufacturing processes in other countries and share the existing knowledge in vaccine development to expand manufacturing capacities so that countries like Nepal that haven’t received as many vaccines as they need will soon be able to get them.

Read also: Nepal’s women envoys make a mark, Pratistha Rijal