Gender imbues every aspect of our relationship with climate change, especially in the South Asian region. Deep-rooted gender inequality can leave many women in South Asia more vulnerable to the impacts of climate catastrophes, from floods to heatwaves. When a big disaster strikes, women and children are statistically more likely to die than men. In the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, for example, women made up 70% of deaths.
The gender balance among decision-makers is also crucial. In many parts of South Asia, women are often shut out of much decision-making at the community level and higher. When women’s perspectives on responses to climate change-related problems are not heard and incorporated, this can result in policies that fail to reflect the whole of society’s needs.
Several initiatives in South Asia are working to bring gender into the centre of responses to climate change – and to share their knowledge and experience across borders. The Third Pole spoke with representatives of three such programmes working across the Himalayas and the Indus Basin.
Bringing gender into policymaking on climate change
Kosar Bano is a gender and adaptation specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), and works for ICIMOD’s Gender Resource Group for the Upper Indus Basin Network in Pakistan.
The Third Pole: What does your project aim to achieve?
Kosar Bano: The Gender Resource Group is a platform for researchers, practitioners and community representatives who work on issues related to gender and water-energy-food securities. The group aims to disseminate the knowledge of its women professionals and increase awareness of gender-differential vulnerabilities among planners and decision-makers, from understanding climate risks and hazards to planning adaptation measures.
[We aim] to bring science and practice together so that policies and decision-makers are well informed, [to enable] gender-inclusive development and to bring gender perspectives that seem to be missing at present.
The Third Pole: How does your work help to address the current gender imbalance in responses to climate change in South Asia?
Kosar Bano: Women’s full participation in policies, programmes, and decision-making is required to challenge the socio-cultural norms and values that result in women’s high vulnerability vis-à-vis men in the face of climate change [impacts]. Improving women’s participation will bring in voices of a big portion of the population, and local and indigenous knowledge, which will enhance the capacity to develop targeted coping strategies.
This platform for practitioners, researchers and policymakers working in the water-energy-food sectors in the Indus Basin creates a gender network for knowledge sharing and advocacy for policy changes at the national and regional levels. A network with such a broad purpose is very much required to address gender issues and concerns in a patriarchal society that subjugates women’s voices.
The Third Pole: How does the project encourage collaboration across borders?
Kosar Bano: There is limited sharing of knowledge among experts and organisations working in the Indus Basin [which spans China, India and Pakistan] on issues related to gender and water-energy-food securities. Bringing such individuals, collectives, and institutions onto a single platform through the Gender Resource Group supports the sharing and exchange of knowledge in the Indus Basin and beyond.
The women in Pakistan’s disaster helpline
In June 2022, a dedicated emergency response helpline ‘Sindh Emergency Service Rescue 1122’ was launched in Sindh Province, in southern Pakistan, to provide communities with a ‘one window’ service for all kinds of emergencies and disasters. Building on the initial success of the project, and considering the need to strengthen disaster management services in the context of climate change, the Government of Sindh is now scaling up the project under the World Bank-funded Sindh Flood Emergency Rehabilitation Project to expand coverage from seven to 16 districts across Sindh.
The 1122 service has been recruiting and training women to act as first responders to disasters like floods. Taskeen Zaidi is a control room operator who manages emergency calls at the Rescue 1122 headquarters in Karachi.
Taskeen Zaidi: Many people around me said that as a woman, I could not do this kind of work. However, I wanted to prove that not only could a woman work, she could perform a valuable service for her community. So I went ahead and applied for a position at Rescue 1122 and got selected.
Our society believes that women cannot do physical work, and there is a stigma attached to physical training. Be it a woman going to the gym, running in a park or performing rescue services, our society believes that women cannot and should not do work that is strenuous or requires physical effort.
I wanted to change this limiting perception about women. I wanted to follow my dream to serve people. Today, I am proud to be a part of Sindh’s rescue team. I hope that through my journey I will inspire other women to follow their dreams and change society’s limiting beliefs about a woman’s ability to do any work she desires.
People ask about what I do and when I tell them, they give me a lot of respect and tell me they are proud of me.Paras Unar, Rescue 1122 Sindh
Paras Unar is responsible for rescue equipment inventory and deployment at the Rescue 1122 headquarters in Karachi.
Paras Unar: After the birth of my second child, I was going through post-partum depression. That’s when my brother mentioned applying for a job with Rescue 1122 Sindh. It immediately gave me a different perspective – that other people’s suffering was far greater than mine.
When I travel to work on the bus wearing my uniform, I feel like an ambassador for Rescue 1122. People ask about what I do and when I tell them, they give me a lot of respect and tell me they are proud of me. One day even my son’s school principal asked me to meet her so I could educate the school children about rescue work. I feel that if a woman believes in herself, she can do any job in the world.
Abid Jalaluddin Shaikh is the rescue director of Rescue 1122, and is based in Karachi.
The Third Pole: How does Rescue 1122 address gender inequality in terms of the impacts of climate change?
Abid Jalaluddin Shaikh: Disasters and climate change exacerbate existing inequalities and gender biases in society, leading to different forms of discrimination and increased vulnerability for girls and women. As we observed in the 2022 floods, investment in gender-sensitive disaster preparedness, response, and recovery is paramount. This requires understanding the different needs and experiences of girls and women.
Involving women at all stages of disaster risk management, including in emergency rescue services, is critical so services are adaptive, appropriate and sustainable. The Sindh Flood Emergency Flood Rehabilitation Project aims for the percentage of women rescuers and management staff hired under Sindh Emergency Service to reach 30% by 2028. This is actually a very ambitious target considering the context in Pakistan, which has one of the largest gender gaps in the world.
The Third Pole: How does the project encourage gender-responsive disaster response beyond Pakistan’s borders?
Abid Jalaluddin Shaikh: The Sindh Emergency Service Rescue 1122 collaborates with local and international partners in order to achieve the desired goals and objectives regarding urban search and rescue operations. The project is in touch with international mechanisms such as the UN International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (UN INSARAG) and we are excited for cross-border knowledge transfer and intercultural dialogue among organisations.
Combining knowledge on gender and climate change
Aditya Bastola is a gender specialist at ICIMOD in Nepal, whose work focuses on the Koshi Gender Portal, a project developed under the Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio II Programme whose objectives included addressing gender and climate change in the transboundary Koshi River Basin, which spans China, India and Nepal.
The Third Pole: What is the Koshi Gender Portal, and what does it aim to achieve?
Aditya Bastola: ICIMOD’s Koshi Gender Portal connects people and facilitates knowledge sharing by compiling knowledge on gender inequalities, access to and control over resources, and emerging gender nuances related to water, food and energy insecurities [across the Koshi River Basin].
The objectives of the portal are to create a repository for sex-disaggregated data at the basin level, and to promote networking among different stakeholders. The gender portal [includes] case studies on good water-energy-food practices for gender transformative change, for which sex-disaggregated data are analysed at the [river] basin scale.
The gender portal is designed as a tool to support decision and policy reforms [that in turn support] gender equality, hence the contents are curated for a range of end users such as researchers, academia, policymakers, and civil society.
The Third Pole: So how can the project help to alleviate the impact of climate change on women across borders?
Aditya Bastola: To accurately assess gender gaps and understand the realities of women and men at a basin scale, it is essential to rely on sex-disaggregated data and track changes over time, including changes in the status or situation of women and men in society. By comparing sex-disaggregated data from China, India and Nepal, policymakers, planners, researchers, and implementers can better address gender issues in development planning and policy, programming, and in integrated river basin management. This approach also considers the gendered impacts of changing climatic conditions.
The transboundary Koshi River Basin is home to over 40 million people who are dependent on water-based livelihoods such as agriculture, livestock, and fisheries. The available data varies across the countries sharing the basin: China, India, and Nepal. The repository of sex-disaggregated data is projected to improve the existing collection of gender indicators used by the basin countries in gender reporting.
In addition, civil society groups and non-governmental organisations use the gender portal to initiate practitioner-to-practitioner dialogues, peer-to-peer support, and networking to strengthen regional collaboration and ensure resilient livelihoods in the Koshi River Basin.
Additional reporting by Farah Yamin Khan.
This work is part of a collaborative editorial series between the World Bank, ICIMOD and The Third Pole that brings together climate experts and regional voices on “Regional Cooperation for Climate Resilience in South Asia”. The views and opinions expressed by the author are her own. The series has been funded by the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office through the Program for Asia Resilience to Climate Change – a trust fund administered by the World Bank.