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International Women’s Day: Challenging power and moving towards a gender equal future

To mark International Women’s Day 2022, SEI Asia researchers interviewed three regional partners, Indigenous Women’s Legal Awareness Group (INWOLAG), Non-Timber Forest Products – Exchange Programme (NTFP-EP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), about their perspectives on women’s common and diverse experiences with climate change, addressing inequalities and actions to achieve gender equality.

Women are often portrayed both as more vulnerable to climate change due to a multitude of barriers, but also as essential, albeit hindered, actors in climate action. From your organization’s experiences, what are women’s common and diverse experiences and relationship with climate change, action and adaptation?

Indigenous Women’s Legal Awareness Group (INWOLAG): Indigenous women in Nepal and elsewhere are among the first ones affected by climate change.

Indigenous women face various climate-related hazards and risks such as landslides, floods, drought, and hailstorms. But indigenous women and their communities have developed practical ways to ensure the balance of the natural environment in which they live and depend upon. As they are aware of the importance of preserving forests to maintain water sources, indigenous women often ensure that the community does not cut trees but collects available fodder and firewood from overgrown branches and fallen leaves. They are also the holders of customary knowledge in the community about landscapes and biodiversity. This knowledge helps prevent disasters; for example, they know what types of grass to plant along steep hills and sandy banks to prevent soil erosion and landslides and retain ground moisture and soil fertility.

Non-Timber Forest Products – Exchange Programme (NTFP-EP): Women play a significant role in climate action, yet many of their experiences and visions are not considered in community and government planning. If they do not have access to the appropriate spaces and resources, their capacities will be suppressed. At NTFP-EP Asia, the gender-just climate programs and actions provides a platform for women to take the lead in the rehabilitation, restoration and conservation of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) and forested landscapes. We have provided grants that supported women and their communities to take an active role in forest governance such as sustainable harvesting and utilization of NTFPs to prevent forest degradation and deforestation, expanding forest areas through planting indigenous tree species, participatory monitoring and community-based action to promote intergenerational knowledge transfer and developing women-led technologies and systems for community-based NTFP enterprises.

International Organization for Migration (IOM): Climate change has a differentiated impacts on women, men, girls and boys depending on the sociocultural context. Moreover, climate- and environmental-related migration tends to exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and in particular intensify the gender-specific dimensions of discrimination and poverty.

For example, women in rural areas may migrate to pursue non-agricultural work elsewhere due to reduced farm productivity and become domestic workers who are underpaid and unprotected from workplace violence. For other women, when their partners migrate, they can be burdened by an even greater share of domestic and labour-related duties. However, it would be an oversimplification to reduce women to passive victims in climate migration. Migration can also lead to positive changes for women and strengthen their social and financial autonomy. IOM conducts gender analysis of migration to better understand gender roles and the differentiated impacts of climate and environmental events based on their social identities which affect their mobility.

The inequalities that create vulnerability and that limit women’s full contributions are often rooted in deeply rooted societal and cultural barriers, from local to national scales and beyond. What do you see as the main barriers limiting women and holding back gender equality in the contexts in which you work?

NTFP-EP: Gender is primarily a relationship of power. All over the world, gender relations are unequal and tend to attribute less rights, access to resources, and voice in decision-making to women in the private, social, economic and political spheres.

Prejudices and stereotypes continue to tag women’s work as subsidiary to the ones of men. Women’s unpaid work within households is not recognized as “work” nor accounted for in national statistics. At the societal level, women are facing formidable obstacles in getting access to tools, resources, networks, and markets as well as institutions and decision-making levels to enact change. At NTFP-EP Asia, we act to pursue gender inclusiveness from the individual to the community level, for example, by promoting women’s active participation in conservation initiatives and in the creation of community-based enterprises aimed at securing sustainable livelihoods for Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

INWOLAG: Indigenous women experience many discriminations, some of which are directly related to laws and policies that are not properly implemented. The systemic discriminations experienced by women stem from patriarchal beliefs that underlie value systems and hold back gender equality.

Indigenous people, especially women, are also impacted by the lack of implementation of the free, prior and informed consent processes when development, conservation, or extractive activities take place on their land. This denies them their rights and their control over natural resources, which exacerbates vulnerabilities. INWOLAG documents the human rights violations that take place in the context of development and conservation initiatives on indigenous land to hold the state and international investors accountable.

IOM: Covid-19 has not only exacerbated but also created new vulnerabilities. Women and girls are increasingly susceptible to exploitation, trafficking, abuse, gender-based violence, and domestic violence. The loss of livelihood opportunities, coupled with border restrictions and stay at home orders, have impacted the financial independence of women. In Southeast Asia, a large number of women are engaged in domestic work – a sector which is highly unregulated and has seen increasing instances of exploitation, non-payment of wages and inability to even leave the premises of the employer during Covid-19.

IWD represents a call for “gender equality today”. What do you think are the most important immediate actions to accelerate progress towards gender equality, by whom and why?

INWOLAG: Improving gender equality needs strong political commitments to ensure the implementation of policies and practices. In the Nepalese context, a place to start can be institutionalizing quotas in every sector in order to redress the inequalities they experience. In addition to policies, the dominant patriarchal culture must shift too. We need to address the sexism that women experience in all spheres of their life, including catcalling, “mansplaining” and inappropriate sexual jokes. An open dialogue is necessary so that both women and men can challenge stereotypical notions of gender. This can be facilitated by advocacy at the policy level so that the state and development institutions are made responsible to address these issues. Empowering education is also necessary as even before hitting puberty, girls internalize beliefs about their place, worth and their role in society.  Girls should be taught that they are capable and deserving of the same respect as boys by their community. Empowered women can become politically informed, be more aware of their rights, and ultimately drive political changes.

NTFP-EP: It is important to approach gender inequality on several levels and from different perspectives, with the common goal of increasing the visibility of women’s roles and knowledge. This empowers women as agents of change at the community and societal level. To this end, NTFP-EP Asia, through its partners and networks, has actively supported women’s networks advocacy in defense of forests, ancestral lands and ecosystems threatened by development infrastructures, extractive industries, and other agents of deforestation. Among the most promising of NTFP-EP Asia’s initiatives is our small grants initiative. An assessment under the Pastor Rice Small Grant Fund (PRSGF) Programme has highlighted very significant gender changes, including increased knowledge and confidence to articulate ideas and participate in development activities, improved capacities of women and/or indigenous-managed community enterprises and the improvement of women’s groups’ ability to collectively assert their rights to land, forests and resources.

IOM: Women should be included in the design of policies and interventions, accompanied by needs assessments. In unjust situations, complaint mechanisms should be available for women and girls to raise grievances and seek redressal. Sectors in society should also support women to take part in meaningful decision-makings. This needs to be done at all levels: individual, community, national and global. IOM ensures gender needs assessment and design tailored assistance packages in its interventions and strives for gender equality in staffing, including at the senior management level.

Learn more about our partners

Indigenous Women’s Legal Awareness Group (INWOLAG)

INWOLAG is one of the thirty partners of SEI’s research “Supporting women environmental human rights defenders for transformative resilience in the face of disasters” under the Building Resilience through Inclusive and Climate-adaptive Disaster Risk Reduction in Asia-Pacific programme.

Non-Timber Forest Products – Exchange Programme (NTFP-EP)

NTFP-EP was one of SEI’s SCF2 grantees in 2020. In partnership with Keystone Foundation, BothENDS and LILAK, they organized a three-day online retreat for grassroots women environmental human rights defenders from Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippines.

Related links:

  1. 2020 International WHR Defenders Day
  2. 2021 Green Herstory – 8 March

International Organization for Migration (IOM)

Under the CREST project, SEI works with IOM to unpack the role of business on the nexus between climate change, environmental degradation and international labour migration. The research focuses on migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar in the Thai sugarcane sector and on migrants from Bangladesh and Indonesia in the Malaysian palm oil sector.

Related links:

  1. Under the Corporate Responsibility in Eliminating Slavery and Trafficking (CREST) initiative, IOM has developed several guidelines to address the labour rights issues including the Human Resource Guidebook on Employer Obligations and Cultural Sensitivity, and Business Guidebook: How to Mediate Employment Disputes under Thai Labour Law.
  2. 2021 International Women’s Day and COVID-19 Impacts on Migrants International Women’s Day — COVID-19 Impact on Migrants | Flow Monitoring

Written by

Sara Vigil
Sara Vigil

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Asia

Cynthia McDougall

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Asia

Dayoon Kim

Research Associate

SEI Asia

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