March 09 2015

Can we really blame it on the rain?



For the last 10 years, I have been working on gender-mainstreaming in economic policies and development programmes in Asia. Using this lens to analyze the deep-rooted iniquities that still characterize much of the world today has become all the more relevant. There is a growing mountain of evidence that policies as well as external shocks such as climate change affect men and women differently, given locations and social and economic strata among other things.

A new research paper Blame it on the Rain?: Gender differentiated impacts of drought on agricultural wage and work in Indiapublished earlier this year confirms what we have known intuitively for a long time. The author, Kanika Mahajan, was one of 80 fellows who attended a two-week course on gender and macroeconomics that I organized with financial support from the Government of Japan. After the course, she applied the knowledge and techniques to her own country’s context and assessed the impacts of climate change on women and men in farming communities. Her findings provides us compelling evidence and insights in designing climate finance policies and programming.

Rice, a staple food in Asia, is a water-intensive crop, and the cultivation of rice requires more labour days, particularly for women, than other crops such as wheat. Men’s tasks, ploughing and sowing, are completed before the monsoon sets in. So transplanting and weeding are primarily tasks for women, which entail additional effort in seasons of low rainfall. When low rainfall is expected in forthcoming seasons, farmers decide not to produce rice and switch to other crops that require less water. As a result, reduced demand for women’s labour in rainfed rice cultivation push down their agricultural wages, which were already 20 per cent less than what men earn on average.

Focus-group discussions with women farmers in 26 villages in two states in India not only validated this data analysis results but revealed more. In villages in Orissa, rainfed rice cultivation state, women reported the hours to collect water increased to more than five hours each day in low rainfall years. As a coping strategy for drought, men migrated or commuted to other villages for paid work opportunity but women’s day-to-day responsibility in family care and household chores keep them away from the labour market.

India has the nationwide rural public works scheme, which provides a guarantee of 100 days of minimum wage employment in unskilled manual work to each household. Yet, many women reported that they could not utilize the opportunity due to lack of time. Those who managed to do some paid work ended up working for longer hours as a result and had suffered from health problems such as fatigue and joint pains.

India’s drought management policy has special provisions for women and children, such as supplying vitamins during drought years. Villagers reported however, they have not received them in recent years. Women’s hard work also imply that provision of such nutritious supplements is not enough for coping. For example, the policy says that drinking water will not be supplied unless no other source is available. Even if water source is available near the village, women found that it is often contaminated during low rainfall years. So, the availability of not just water but ‘clean’ water for drinking as well as for bathing, washing utensils, and livestock care is important to minimize women’s unpaid work because water collection and caring of the sick and livestock are all women’s work.  

The study indicates that introducing alternative food crops for climate adaptation should not result in unfavorable economic situations for women farmers. Water purification system, alternative cooking and heating energy solutions, as well as provision of community-based child care and health care could also contribute to women’s empowerment through programme interventions for climate mitigation and adaption.

A new Green Climate Fund, which is expected to raise roughly US$100 billion by 2020 for financing mitigation and adaption responses to climate change, seeks to address gender issues in designing programmes. I hope similar focus-group discussions can be conducted in other countries. Women are both income and time poor. Meeting their needs is a prerequisite for sustainable development.

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