The Under Representation of South Asian Women in the Climate Change debate

By Anam Zeb and Farshad Usyan

There has been a shift in the way women are considered in #ClimateChange discussions. We are being urged to stop thinking of women as victims of climate change, but as a valuable resource, capable of contributing to local, national, regional and global efforts to counter climate change.

There is probably no better example of this than Christiana Figueres, whose marked incline in the world to climate change negotiations is exemplary. “Empowerment of women strengthens #ClimateAction, we can make it a reality. Each member state must have #GenderSensitive policies which are more effective in making sure that they focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation,’ she said during the Bonn Climate Talks.

However, there appears to be a huge disconnect between the ‘discussions’ on #GenderMainstreaming, and the actual inclusion of women as meaningful contributors in climate negotiations and conferences. Even by many of the so-called “mainstreamers”.

Of the 7 Plenary Sessions and 35 Parallel sessions held at the Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum (APAN), in Sri Lanka this week, the representation of South Asian women has been woefully low.

One of the few women invited was Khrienuo Metha, the Secretary to the Government of Nagaland, India. She was there for “gender representation”. One woman amongst 5 men during a high level plenary on Environment and Climate Authorities.

Khrienuo Metha listens to a question on climate change at a high level plenary where she was the only female speaker amongst five men

While she was being introduced, her participation was upheld for its role in ‘gender balance’- perhaps more for the sake of maintaining this balance, rather than adding anything from her experience.

In fact, I later learned from Metha that originally ‘they had invited the chief minister of Nagaland’. But ‘because he could not come, he had requested his environment minister to come’.

Khrienuo Metha may not be the only one only here by accident.

While gender has come up as a discussion point in these sessions, it is indicative to note that only 1 session out of 35 has explicitly referenced gender at the #APAN2016 conference.

But its not like there haven’t been women here. The stage seats have been filled with plenty of women from other Asian countries, such as conference sponsor’s Japan, who have represented at high level panels as well as led sessions. But I can’t say the same for women from my own region.

Hina Lotia, from LEAD Pakistan, was one of the few women presenters from #SouthAsia at the conference. Agreeing that there have been women present at the conference, Hina felt that ‘Just looking around the room, I feel that its not women who are less in number, but its women who are not active in speaking up. Does it have to do with the South Asian culture? Its not about women as a symbol of gender mainstreaming. Its also about men highlighting the vulnerabilities of women’.

Hina Lotia, LEAD Pakistan presents at a session on Loss and Damage

We South Asians have sat and listened to lots of other white women from developed countries, working far from their comfortable homes, and have even led more than 10 sessions over the last 2 days. So why the drought of South Asian women? Are our scientists and policymakers not good enough?

Or is it because there are no women on top positions in South Asian Countries?

Hina felt that this could be due to the #GenderBiased history of climate change forums. ‘Policy Makers and experts that we see in high level forums and plenaries are those who have reached up the ladder over time. And we look 25-30 years back, women were less represented in this group.’ So naturally, it would take time for women to reach higher up in the ranks and represent at forums.

Harjeet Singh, from Action Aid India, thinks that structural reasons may also be to blame for this. Whilst the sessions were ongoing, Harjeet, in response to a question on what the barriers to South Asian women’s participation in the conference could be, responded to a tweet:

It is not enough to lament every time a forum on climate change comes up, that there were not enough women involved. Structural changes and socio-cultural norms may be difficult to change, however, what can be changed is the way these forums are conceptualised. We see gender and female representation more as an ‘add on’ rather than as an integral part of inclusive climate debate.

This can only be countered if women start recognising the need to put other promising women forward. But even further than that, for governments, conference organisers and the entire climate change community to consider promoting #GenderParticipation, particularly from countries whose women are proven to be the most challenged by climate change.

Hina feels that all is not lost. ‘People who lead research are invited as speakers. Women as principal investigators for research projects are a rare commodity. Now donors and funders are encouraging women lead research. Also, the number of women going into research and specialised degrees is also increasing. The challenge would be for these women to come into the workforce.

The views expressed here are solely of the author’s and not of CAN South Asia’s. 



#APAN2016  #ClimateAction  #ClimateChange  #GenderBiased  #GenderMainstreaming  #GenderParticipation  #GenderSensitive  #SouthAsia