Inspire Inclusion: The Imperative for Women’s Participation in India’s Climate Decision-making

As the world grapples with the complex crisis of climate change, it has become increasingly evident that a robust solution demands an inclusive approach. This year, as we commemorate International Women’s Day under the theme “Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress”, we highlight the crucial role of women’s economic empowerment in promoting equality. The theme “Inspire Inclusion” emphasises the importance of a broader approach that extends beyond just economic considerations. It highlights the necessity to address the social complexities of climate change in a more inclusive manner.

In the mosaic of climate change impacts, women’s increased vulnerability is a stark reality. Especially in countries like India, where the effects of climate change are acutely felt, women bear a disproportionate share of the burden. From enduring the brunt of extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods to grappling with exacerbated health risks and economic losses, women often bear the brunt. Yet, despite women’s heightened exposure to climate risks and their vast potential for contributions to positive climate action, they remain under-represented in mainstream decision-making processes. This disparity reflects wider systemic inequities and a historical undervaluing of women’s voices.

The disproportionate vulnerability of women to climate change underscores the urgent need to amplify their roles in shaping a more resilient and sustainable future. As UN Women Executive Director Sima Bahous aptly stated, “We will not meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal, or any other goal, without gender equality and the full contribution of women and girls”.

Why empower women to be decision-makers in climate governance?

Foremost among the reasons for including women in climate change decision-making is the fundamental principle that those most affected must have a voice in shaping solutions. As a matter of equity, this is an acknowledgement that those bearing the brunt of negative outcomes are also often uniquely equipped to help craft effective, innovative, and equitable solutions. If women continue to be excluded from steering climate action, it is highly probable that they will fail to benefit equally from lateral climate policies.

The imperative for women’s inclusion in climate change decision-making thus goes beyond equity; it is a pragmatic necessity. Women’s voices, experiences, and expertise are indispensable assets in navigating the complexities of climate change and steering us towards a sustainable and resilient future. Women’s profound understanding of local ecosystems and resource management renders them uniquely suitable as ecological and social custodians. Social factors cause women to assume multiple roles: decision-makers, stakeholders, educators, caregivers, and experts. This renders many women exceptionally skilled at dialogue, fairness, and compassion – vital traits for today’s climate leaders.          

Another critical aspect of mainstreaming women into decision-making processes will be establishing robust channels of communication between leaders and the communities most vulnerable to climate-related risks. Research consistently finds that women possess a unique sensitivity to these vulnerabilities within communities. They are adept at recognising the nuanced impacts of climate change, often experienced most acutely by marginalised groups.

In the Indian context, the inclusion of women in policy-making, right from the grassroots level, is also a matter of strategic importance. For example, in the agricultural sector, women make up more than half of the labour force, but women’s actual economic contributions are not reflected in their economic power. Despite comprising 63% of the agricultural workforce, only 7% of married women in landed households own land; this inequity hinders women from contributing effectively to land conservation efforts. Further, a recent study by the FAO finds that women take on an additional work burden compared to men when extreme weather events occur but also lose more income opportunities. This is in addition to the fact that female-headed households are more adversely affected by climate change, losing over 8% more of their annual income as compared to other households. This suggests that women and female-headed households bear a disproportionate economic burden from climate-related disasters and underscores the urgency of women’s inclusion in decision-making processes.

Women play a pivotal role in building climate resilience within communities. UN studies consistently find that communities exhibit greater success in resilience-building endeavours when women are actively involved in planning and implementation. Leveraging their robust social networks, women contribute significantly to preparedness, response, and recovery efforts during climate disasters. Particularly in India, initiatives like women’s self-help groups epitomise the power of collective action driven by women, serving as beacons of resilience amidst environmental challenges.

Even within corporate realms, the presence of women as decision-makers heralds positive changes. Women’s leadership fosters increased transparency regarding climate impact within workplaces. Research indicates that higher proportions of women on corporate boards correlate positively with the transparent disclosure of carbon emissions data. Furthermore, studies elucidate the distinct ethical values and decision-making traits that women executives bring to the table, finding a significant positive relationship between the proportion of women directors and climate change-related disclosures. Thus, advocating for women’s participation in decision-making processes concerning climate change policies is not just a matter of social justice but a pragmatic approach to sustainable development.

Legal constraints and inequalities further impede women’s involvement in climate governance. In particular, access to information remains a challenge for many women, especially in rural areas. Streamlining communication channels and providing women with access to formal agricultural extension services and relevant information is imperative to bridge this gap.

How can women be empowered to be decision-makers?

India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change emphasises the need for inclusive and sustainable development. However, engagement with gendered vulnerability and adaptive capacity remains uneven. State-level action plans mention mainstreaming efforts but often focus on existing projects rather than on transformative policies. Furthermore, India’s Nationally Determined Contributions lack consideration of women’s vulnerabilities despite focusing on climate-vulnerable sectors like agriculture and water resources. Addressing sector-specific vulnerabilities and women-specific constraints is crucial for effective climate action.

Despite progress, such as initiatives at COP28 to integrate gender perspectives into climate discussions, significant disparities persist. Efforts like the Gender-Responsive Just Transitions underscore the importance of women’s meaningful participation, yet their integration into key outcomes remains incomplete.

India has made strides in gender inclusivity in decision-making, but challenges remain. While legislative measures have increased women’s representation in political bodies, this alone is not enough. Gender inclusivity must also be reflected in specific climate change policies to ensure effective representation and address gendered vulnerabilities.

The urgency of emphasising women’s significant role in shaping climate change policies cannot be overstated. However, significant barriers, including financial constraints, hinder women’s participation in climate governance. Efforts should focus on providing women with greater economic opportunities, enabling their active engagement in climate-related decision-making processes. Investing in upskilling and vocational training for women is essential, as is ensuring access to education to equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge. For a truly sustainable, equitable, and resilient future, we must continue investing in efforts to integrate women and gendered perspectives into discussions, leadership, and policymaking around climate change.

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