Women play a crucial role in promoting environmental sustainability in India, yet their contributions often go unrecognised. As we celebrate International Women's Day, it is important to highlight the vital role of women in climate action and the steps they are taking towards a sustainable future. In this dialogue, we will discuss the connection between women and the environment, showcase examples of successful women-led initiatives towards environmental sustainability, and address the challenges and barriers that women face in their efforts to promote sustainability. We will also shine a light on our own experience working with women's communities, and highlight the positive impact that empowering women can have on environmental sustainability efforts. Ultimately, our aim is to promote greater recognition and support for women as agents of change in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation in India.
Climate Change and Gender Disparity
We have already established on many occasions that climate change disproportionately affects marginalised communities, particularly women and girls, who are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to their social, economic, and political status. The human experience of climate change is not limited to natural calamity. The effects of it are manifested in other forms such as loss of infrastructure, the spread of infectious disease, and rising food insecurity (Singhal, 2022). The way in which these effects are experienced, is compounded by one's subjective experience of the world, as a result of the social norms and roles that they embody. Gender disparity is no exception to this. Besides the fact that women are more likely to live in poverty than men, and that they enjoy fewer basic human rights than men, such as their ability to freely move and obtain land (McCarthy, 2020); research shows that women are more engaged with environmental related activities and resources than their male counterparts, yet have less agency to make decisions over those resources. For example, women in rural parts of India spend more time on average than their male counterparts fetching water. However, due to their relative position, women have less control over such resources and have limited decision making power when it comes to the distribution of those resources and their management in the event of a crisis (Singhal, 2022). Furthermore, in instances of natural calamity, not only do women tend to sacrifice and eat less than men due to gender-biased expectations (ibid.), but they are also more vulnerable to gender based violence during these times, as systemic violence escalated during periods of instability (McCarthy, 2020).
Women as Agents of Change
Despite the disadvantages faced by women world over, in the context of climate change and otherwise, it is important not to perceive women as helpless victims. Their leadership and resilience have massively positive effects in the context of climate action. In India, like in many places world over, women are at the fore front of climate action. Across the country, organisations are empowering women with the tools and education to become leaders in everything from energy transition, to other forms of climate action. There are countless examples of this, such as the Meenangadi Carbon Neutral initiative in Wayanad, Kerala, which aims to achieve carbon neutrality through a community-focused, bottom-up approach, by introducing an ambitious women-led policy (Agha, 2022).
The Ecogram project has successfully united the women of the community through the formation of the Ecogram Shakthi group, empowering them to become agents of change and echoing the project's values within their families, homes, and the wider community. Our slogan, ‘clean village, healthy future’, resonates immensely with female members of the community. The desire to protect their children and families from infectious diseases that are caused and exacerbated by improper waste disposal, motivates the women to enact the norms that we are trying to inculcate in people, and drives them to inspire other community members to do the same.
The Ecogram Shakthi outreach program started in July 2019, and undertook several activities that focused on creating a sustainable environmental model that will benefit future generations. In recognition of the fact that mothers play a crucial role in shaping the values and practices of their families, young mothers of the community were united and encouraged to reiterate the values and work of the Ecogram project at their household level. The aim was for these women to become the voices of the project in their community and to create a passive revolution that led to a healthier and cleaner environment.
To get the women interested, the initiative provided opportunities for skill development such as fitness activities like yoga and zumba, self-defence classes, and lectures on topics such as domestic violence, inheritance law, and the environmental impact of littering. The initiative also offered spoken English and computer literacy classes, talks on women's health and nutrition, and monthly educational trips to landfills etc. The women also gathered twice a month for community meetings where they talked about Ecogram and provided feedback. They were also trained to become custodians of two streets each, ensuring that door-to-door collection of waste was happening. The women were trained to conduct awareness sessions and were paid on an hourly basis when they conducted these sessions. Overall, the Ecogram Shakthi Group empowered women to take ownership of their environment and play an active role in creating a better future for themselves and their families.
The initiative provided us with a great experience and we really saw how engaged the women were with the project. It was clear that behavioural change starts in
the home, and we saw positive impacts as the women took the values and practices of the project into their households. Additionally, having the women on our side and being our supporters made it easier for us to carry out our work in the field. Their male counterparts, who are the decision-makers in the community, were more open to us and our agenda because we had their wives' support. The unequal power distribution between genders sheds light on the challenges and barriers that women face in their efforts to promote environmental sustainability.
Limited access to financial resources, education and political power all act as barriers that make it more difficult for women to engage in environmental activism, contribute to decision-making processes, and access funding for sustainable initiatives. Furthermore, patriarchal norms can undermine women's environmental efforts by reinforcing gendered stereotypes and limiting their social and economic mobility. Ultimately, addressing gender inequalities and promoting women's empowerment is critical to achieving a sustainable and just future for all.
In conclusion, women in India play a significant role in promoting environmental sustainability, yet their contributions often go unrecognised. Women are at the forefront of climate action in India, and the world, and organisations are empowering them with tools and education to become leaders in this movement. Despite the disadvantages faced by women in India, their leadership and resilience have positive effects on climate action. To promote greater recognition and support for women as agents of change in the fight against climate change and environmental degradation in India, it is crucial to address these challenges and barriers and to continue empowering women with the tools and education they need to make a positive impact on the environment. At Ecogram, it is our firm belief that women's leadership is not only essential, but also critical to ensuring a secure and climate-safe future for our planet. We continue to support and empower the women in our community and beyond, to take action and be the voices of change.
Happy Women’s Day to all.
Singhal, S. (2022) Climate change and women: A crisis within a crisis Available from https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/climate-change-and-women/#:~:text=A%20report%20by%20Climate%20Action,gender-biased%20expectations%20of%20altruism. [accessed 6 March 2023].
McCarthy, J. (2020) Understanding Why Climate Change Impacts Women More Than Men Available from https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/how-climate-change-affects-women/ [accessed 6 March 2023]
Agha, Z. (2022) The women leading India’s climate struggle - Policy Forum Available from https://www.policyforum.net/the-women-leading-indias-climate-struggle/ [accessed 6 March 2023].