If you go to visit the low-lying coastal zone of Bangladesh, you will see millions of houses with big tanks on the roofs. Families, primarily the women, have installed these tanks to collect rainwater to be used as drinking water during the dry season when raising seas turn other water sources saline.
“Healthy human beings can ingest a little bit of salt, but some people cannot, in particular pregnant women would be prone to high blood pressure and preeclampsia at childbirth if they drank salty water,” said Prof. Saleemul Huq, Director, International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh.
He explained that rainwater harvesting is going to scale, driven by the people themselves:
“We cannot tell communities what to do. They already know, and we need to understand them and work with them, especially the women. Talk to the women first and listen to them.”
Prof. Huq was among the speakers at a side event held on March 14, 2022, as part of the 66th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)— the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. The session titled: Women’s and girls’ empowerment as key to sustainable food systems in a changing climate was co-hosted by the CGIAR GENDER Platform with the Permanent Missions (PM) of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and Zambia to the United Nations (UN).
The prompt to listen to women sums up much of the discussion during the event. Distinguished speakers emphasized that investing in women and girls could have transformative impacts on global food systems. Ensuring that women and girls have equal access to resources, education, technologies as well as to policy-making can help tackle the existential threat that climate change poses to global food systems.
Entry points and ways forward for gender equality and climate responses
Women contribute immensely to sustainable food production and consumption, hence the need to fight gender inequality in food systems, explained Her Excellency Ambassador Rabab Fatima, Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to the UN, during her opening remarks.
“To build a more sustainable food system, we must eradicate discrimination and ensure equal access to land and natural resources. Women must have access to education and the best available technologies, which help them access information and empower them in food production. We need multi-sectoral partnerships to develop equitable food systems imperative for our survival in changing climate,” Ambassador Fatima said.
But where to start? Dr. Nicoline de Haan, Director, CGIAR GENDER Platform, offered two entry points, two examples and two ways to move forward.
Dr de Haan pointed to food systems and research as two entry points to tackling the dual challenge of achieving gender equality and coping with climate change, both of which are brought together in this year’s CSW.
“Why food systems? Food systems are our closest relation to nature and climate change. Women provide 20 to 80 percent of the labor in the food system. Therefore, food systems are an important entry point for enhancing gender equality and women’s empowerment,” said Dr de Haan.
She went on to explain that research is another necessary entry point as too much work on gender is emotive and there is a need for evidence based research that provides inclusive and climate-smart solutions.
Speaking to both long- and short-term solutions, Dr de Haan first highlighted the need to acknowledge the problem and change systems. Noting that women have no say in climate change policies and decisions, Dr. de Haan said,
“We really need to figure out how to actually listen to women more, make them part of the solution, and give them a voice in finding those solutions.” In the short term, Dr de Haan called for developing the best tools in climate smart agriculture for women, it is time we develop cutting edge opportunities for them.
Women are agents of change, girls are leaders of tomorrow
Dr. Agnes Kalibata, President, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), reiterated the need for better technologies in her keynote address. Women and men have different access to information and technologies, and there is a 30 percent food production gap because women are not accessing technologies, according to Dr. Kalibata. Therefore, progress depends on women’s access to technologies, she concluded, before adding that women must also be involved in decision making:
"Women need a voice and institutional support. Policies and programs need to be developed with the experiences and knowledge from a woman's perspective. When women participate in decision making, they influence how technologies are adopted.”
Indeed, technology adoption is an important focus of CGIAR’s climate adaption efforts in India, explained Dr. Ranjitha Puskur, Evidence Module Leader, CGIAR GENDER Platform
“Through CGIAR programs, we are addressing some of the issues, for example in climate-smart villages in India. But, while access to climate-smart technologies is important, it is not enough to empower women and girls. We need to address the barriers women and girls face and enhance their agency and support them to become change agents," she shared.
CGIAR’s interventions therefore involve both providing stress-tolerant crops and management practices targeting women and girls, but also training programs on gender and climate change as well as other social and institutional interventions based on the local context.
Runa Khan, Founder and Executive Director at Friendship also emphasized the importance of meeting the needs of women and girls. Speaking of her work in Bangladesh developing scalable solutions to strengthen marginalised communities and empower people to transform their lives and reach their full potential she said:
“We need the right interventions, at the right time and place, for the right people. What do you need when you have nothing? You need to be safe from fear and you need empowerment. The platform you create for people must consider health, education, access to finance, information and what the government is offering as part of empowerment.”
Also speaking of empowerment, Prof. Huq attributed Bangladesh’s progress on climate change adaption in part to empowering girls academically: “Invest in girls’ education to become the leaders and champions of tomorrow. They should be empowered everywhere. Empowering the girls of today to become the leaders of tomorrow is the number one solution.”
This was echoed by Beatrice Phiri, Founder, Friends of Nature, in Guinea and Zambia said that training young people as climate change activists is an important intervention.
“At Friends of Nature, we believe in giving equal training opportunities around climate change to both girls and boys. We want to ensure majority of girls are voices of their community and provide them with climate information.”
The time to act is now
In his closing remarks, His Excellency Ambassador Ngosa Simbyakula, Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of Zambia to the UN, highlighted the Zambian government action towards climate change and reiterated why the time to act is now:
“Although women are the bedrock of food security, they are hardest hit by climate shocks and food insecurity,” he said.
“The information shared today will certainly go a long way in providing recommendations to policy makers on how to address the negative impacts of climate change as well as practical solutions for how to build adaptive capacities in women and girls.”