Unveiling Gender Dimensions of Climate Change In Pakistan

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In the arid landscapes of Pakistan, where the mighty Indus River weaves through its terrain, the gender dimensions of climate change paint a stark reality. According to recent data from the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, women constitute 70% of the agricultural workforce, yet they own merely 3% of the land—a sobering statistic that underscores the profound gender disparities shaping the climate crisis in this region. Around the globe, the impacts of climate change manifest differently for men and women, shaped by their distinct roles and responsibilities within households and communities. This inequality extends to access to opportunities such as education and participation in political processes, further marginalizing women. Pakistan reflects these disparities vividly, with women bearing a disproportionate burden of climate change impacts. Particularly in rural areas, traditional gender roles intensify women’s vulnerability, amplifying challenges in accessing essential resources like water and firewood. This dynamic increases their workload and household responsibilities, exacerbating their vulnerability to the changing climate.

 

The impact of climate change has the potential to exacerbate existing gender disparities, largely stemming from women’s limited access to resources, decision-making processes, and freedom of choice, all of which are constrained by pervasive patriarchal values and social norms. This emphasizes the imperative to address these gendered vulnerabilities and acknowledges the prevalence of patriarchal systems hindering women’s participation in adaptation and mitigation efforts across South Asian and HKH countries. Moreover, alongside gender inequality, climate change compounds issues of food insecurity and poverty, amplifying the root causes of vulnerability to climate change. At the forefront of the most pressing ecological and environmental crisis lies climate change, its ramifications evident in droughts, floods, extreme weather events, and the spread of diseases, exacerbating global water and food insecurities. Among the 1.3 billion individuals affected worldwide, a significant portion comprises women, with approximately 80% of them displaced by climate-related disasters, as reported by the United Nations Development Programme in 2015.

In a study conducted by Oxfam in 2019, titled “Climate-Induced Migration in Pakistan,” researchers examined the water crisis in the coastal districts of Sindh. They found that local women are compelled to travel an average distance of two kilometers daily to fetch water from wells and hand pumps, often making multiple trips per day. Concurrently, the shifting climate exacerbates existing gender disparities, further impoverishing communities and depriving them of essential opportunities and resources. Consequently, the combination of poverty, along with political and socio-economic marginalization, places women at a distinct disadvantage in coping with the adverse effects of climatic challenges.

Sindh, a predominantly agrarian province in Pakistan, hosts a substantial rural population where women are integral to agricultural endeavors alongside their household responsibilities. However, within the rigid social hierarchy and under the influence of elite landholders, coupled with cultural and religious constraints, rural women in Sindh are among the most marginalized members of society.

The impacts of climate change further compound challenges for female employment in Pakistan. Notably, in 2010-2011, a significant majority, 74.2%, of working women were employed in the agricultural sector, compared to only 34.7% of men. Women undertake crucial farming tasks such as sowing, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, and post-harvest operations including threshing, drying, storage, off-farm transportation, and marketing. Additionally, in livestock rearing, women are responsible for fodder collection, animal care, dung cake preparation, processing animal products like cheese, butter, yogurt, and their subsequent marketing. As weather patterns undergo shifts, the vulnerability of women is projected to escalate. While climate change poses challenges across various sectors of society, women are expected to bear a disproportionate burden due to their dual roles in production and reproduction. Historical evidence from past natural disasters underscores this vulnerability, particularly in Pakistan. For instance, during the devastating floods of 2010, a staggering number of women, totaling 713,000 in the age group of 15-49, along with 133,000 pregnant women, were directly impacted, highlighting their heightened susceptibility to such calamities.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Southeast Asia as the regions most severely affected by climate change (IPCC, 2018). Bangladesh, in particular, has been singled out as one of the world’s most vulnerable countries.  Climate injustices are glaringly evident during disasters, such as the floods in Pakistan, deemed one of the costliest disasters in history (World Bank, 2022), despite the country contributing only 0.5% of global carbon emissions.

In times of disaster, climate adaptation professionals scrutinize the impacts, including gender-specific ones, to tailor projects accordingly. The disproportionately high female casualty rates in disasters underscore the exacerbation of gender vulnerabilities. For instance, during the 1991 cyclone disaster in Bangladesh, 90% of the 140,000 fatalities were female, a statistic not solely attributable to biological differences but also influenced by gender roles and socio-cultural norms. In the recent catastrophic flash floods along the Kabul and Indus rivers in 2022, Pakistan witnessed unprecedented devastation, with over a third of its territory submerged and over 7.6 million people displaced, including approximately 598,000 Afghan refugees. The loss of over 1,500 lives, including around 600 children, underscores the severity of the disaster, affecting every corner of the nation. However, pregnant women emerge as the most vulnerable demographic amidst this tragedy.

According to estimates by the United Nations Population Fund, around 650,000 pregnant women and young girls have been affected by the floods, with approximately 73,000 expected to give birth in September 2022 alone. Access to essential prenatal care and skilled medical staff, along with post-birth medical support, remains elusive for many. With makeshift living conditions in plastic tents becoming the norm for displaced women, the urgent need for safe birthing spaces is paramount.

 

Yet, meeting the basic needs of pregnant women proves to be a daunting task. Many struggle to secure even fundamental necessities such as food and clean water, compounded by the destruction of healthcare facilities. Of the 1,460 health facilities damaged by the floods, 432 were completely demolished, further limiting access to healthcare services and essential supplies.

Importantly, while the floods have exacerbated the situation, they have not created it. For years, Pakistani women have grappled with inadequate healthcare infrastructure and rising birth rates, resulting in the highest maternal mortality ratio in South Asia. The Pakistani government must prioritize the improvement of its healthcare system, not only as a humanitarian imperative but also for economic development.

Efforts to rebuild and enhance healthcare infrastructure should focus on constructing modern facilities, improving transportation networks, establishing reliable medical supply chains, and implementing government programs to support pregnant women throughout their pregnancy and post-birth. By addressing these issues, the government can make a significant impact on the lives of pregnant women and pave the way for a more resilient healthcare system. While the floods of 2022 have brought immense tragedy to Pakistan, they also present an opportunity for the government to prioritize the well-being of its citizens, especially pregnant women.

Sociocultural norms in affected regions further amplify women’s vulnerability, perpetuating gender disparities from childhood. Factors like veiling, early marriage, labor division, resource access, female-headed households, and violence against women are pivotal in understanding rural settings both pre and post-disaster. During disasters, women shoulder the bulk of responsibilities, from childcare to resource management and household protection, compounded by the absence of migrating men seeking work.

Despite adversities, women exhibit resilience and resourcefulness during crises, implementing various mitigation and adaptation strategies at the household level. However, patriarchal norms often devalue their contributions, relegating them to marginalized roles in casual labor. Decision-making processes remain skewed, limiting women’s agency and recognition in both household and community contexts.

At the policy level, evidence-based data collection is crucial for addressing gaps. Economic, social, and cultural barriers must be dismantled to support vulnerable women. Integrating a gender perspective into national policies is vital. Policies should focus on specific issues rather than generalized approaches, avoiding perpetuation of power imbalances. Women’s essential needs must not be overlooked, and the exploitation of natural resources must be curbed. Raising awareness about women’s sacrifices and viewing climate change through a gendered lens is essential for effective action.

Mahnoor Inayat
Mahnoor Inayat
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Mahnoor Inayat is currently pursuing bachelor’s degree in international relations from NUML, Islamabad. Her area of keen interest includes Foreign Policy of Pakistan Analysis, Domestic and Global Politics, Current Affairs, Non-Traditional Security Challenges especially regarding Climate Change, Geopolitics of South Asia, and Middle East Politics.

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Mahnoor Inayathttps://www.linkedin.com/in/mahnoor-inayat-01ba55284
Mahnoor Inayat is currently pursuing bachelor’s degree in international relations from NUML, Islamabad. Her area of keen interest includes Foreign Policy of Pakistan Analysis, Domestic and Global Politics, Current Affairs, Non-Traditional Security Challenges especially regarding Climate Change, Geopolitics of South Asia, and Middle East Politics.

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