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On climate change’s fury road: Equipping women to steer towards resilient agricultural systems and livelihoods

by Ranjitha Puskur and Mou Rani Sarker

“A third of my country was underwater last month,  said Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.  “The heaviest rains in almost a decade began and have still not abated. More than 1.5 million Bangladeshis are displaced; tens of thousands of hectares of paddy fields have been washed away. Millions of my compatriots will need food aid this year.”

All this was happening in the midst of the  unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Bangladesh, along with several other nations, are faced with a highly daunting task: to deal with back-to-back crises, both complex and with multiple ramifications, and come out from it with minimal damages. 

One essential step will be realizing that rural women are the lifeline of Bangladeshi agriculture. However, to help the country through these crises, women need access to new knowledge and improved technologies, alternative economic opportunities, and a better enabling environment.

Bangladesh and its tryst with climate shocks

Bangladesh, still a predominantly agrarian economy with 75% of its cropped area under rice, is one of the most vulnerable countries with regard to climate emergencies. Floods, cyclones, droughts, tidal surges, tornadoes, river erosion, water logging, rising water, and soil salinity batter Bangladesh year after year, ravaging the economy and livelihoods of farming households. On an average, country-wide drought occurs every five years. Flooding is a regular phenomenon and, roughly once every 10 years, one-third of the country is severely affected by floods. Between 1970 and 2015, over 45 cyclones swept across the country. There have been three devastating cyclones in the last 4 years alone highlighting the increasing frequency and intensity of such shocks.

Annually, 1.62% of the total GDP is damaged by different disasters. Nearly 700,000 Bangladeshis were displaced , on average, annually over the last decade by natural disasters. That number spikes in years with catastrophic cyclones. But even in relatively calm years, the drumbeat of displacement keeps growing louder as sea levels rise, erosion, salinity intrusion, crop failures, and repeating inundation make life along the coast untenable. The number of Bangladeshis displaced by the varied impacts of climate change could reach 13.3 million by 2050, making it the country’s number one driver of internal migration.

Women are the lifeline of Bangladeshi agriculture, but also face the brunt of climate shocks

In 2019, 59% of Bangladeshi women were engaged in the agriculture sector and account for 45% of the agricultural labor force. Women’s labor accounts for 28% of the total labor use in field crops. However, as they are mainly unpaid family labor, their contributions have always been grossly undervalued.

About 48% of women live in the disaster-prone areas of Bangladesh. It has been well-established that women disproportionately  face the brunt of natural disasters and climatic shocks. In May, 2020, , Cyclone Amphan  affected nearly 820,000 women including over 49,316 pregnant women and 29,133 women-headed households.

The impacts of these shocks are multifarious. Fatalities among women following cyclones and floods are five times higher than men. Women are often unable to access information, which is distributed in public spaces. The social norms may not allow them to leave their homes without a male relative. And most cannot swim. Cultural norms dictating that women cannot leave the household until everyone else has evacuated was a major reason why a disproportionate number of women died in the 1991 cyclone.

It isn’t just loss of lives that women have to contend with; the livelihoods of those who survive are seriously jeopardized. Poverty, lack of social safety nets, natural resource and climate-dependent livelihoods, and low asset bases increase sensitivity to such shocks.  

Women become economically insecure after a disaster as working conditions deteriorate.  Usually women take considerably more time to compensate for the economic losses caused by a disaster compared to men. This is because they are poorer and have less access to entrepreneurial skills development opportunities and financial resources like credit or savings; unequal property rights limit women’s ability to buy and own land, women earn less because of the gender pay gap, if paid at all, and their income is less secure. 

The gendered liquidation of assets (livestock, jewelry), selling other valuables, mortgaging,  borrowing against assets, borrowing from neighbors are common short-term coping strategies to meet household financial needs. However, they intensify the vulnerability of women in the medium- to long-run. 

Finally, as men migrate out of rural areas due to the climatic shocks, the women left behind start playing the role of income earners leading to increased workloads for them. This is aggravated as the access to basic needs and natural resources such as shelter, food, fertile land, water, and fuel is affected during and after climate shocks. This can further increase  the care burdens on women. Time poverty of women is a stark reality. In rural Bangladesh, women on an average spend 328 hours/month on domestic and care work while men spend only 42 hours. The unequal burden of responsibilities leaves women time poorer (Sarker, 2020).

How can we equip women to deal better with these emergencies?

Time and again, women have  proven that they are resilient and get on with their lives while facing adversity and shocks. What they need is access to  new knowledge and technologies, alternative economic opportunities, and an enabling environment. So, what are we doing now and what else do we need to do to help women deal with these shocks? 

Developing and promoting new knowledge and technologies to promote diverse and resilient  agricultural production systems for food and nutrition security

Households in stress-prone areas (submergence, drought, and salinity) have high dependence on rice production. While it is imperative to diversify the rice systems, it is also true that this change will not happen overnight. Rice is interwoven with Bangla culture and is an integral part of their diets. It is important to make these systems resilient as transitions take place. 

IRRI and its partners developed and introduced several salt-, submergence-, and drought-tolerant rice varieties in different regions. These stress-tolerant rice varieties (STRVs) are helping women and their households minimize crop losses due to the shocks. Polders in Bangladesh are subject to tidal flooding, salinity incursion, and waterlogging caused by storm surges and are amongst the most vulnerable ecosystems in Bangladesh. Employing  participatory action research, IRRI and its partners developed productive, profitable, and resilient cropping patterns through innovative community‐led water management for the polders.  Nutrient management technologies have optimized fertilizer usage not only to reduce the costs of cultivation and enhance net returns, but also to reduce the environmental footprint and make the systems sustainable. Introduction of hermetic storage technologies for seeds as a part of a women-led community seed model is ensuring seed security for women. 

Widespread malnutrition is being tackled through the production, income, and women empowerment pathways. Biofortified rice varieties with higher zinc have been released. Meanwhile, rice varieties with high iron and provitamin A are close to release.

Dry season crops like maize, sunflower, and mung bean  as well as rice-fish culture have been introduced to diversify  rice-based systems.  Households using maize grains and leaves as feed for their poultry, livestock, and fish  had more access to milk, meat, egg, and fish contributing to better nutrition.  As a complementary measure, IRRI has engaged women and children in nutrition awareness-raising activities targeting mothers and teachers of primary, middle, and highschool children. Women farmers have been trained on different aspects of crop and water management, marketing, and trade‐offs among new crops and cropping systems with the traditional cropping.

Women with training and economic support found work outside of their traditional domestic duties—increased engagement in domestic food production,  fishing and crab production,  cultivating salt-tolerant vegetables,  producing household organic fertilizer and applying it to remediate salinized soils,  production of handicrafts, and  raising  poultry to be more financially solvent.  In the southern parts of the country, floating gardens (locally known as Dhap) for growing vegetables and spices is heralded as a way to fight climate change.

Expanding resilient livelihood choices and providing alternative economic opportunities

Women’s entrepreneurship development is being pursued with a particular focus on their role in mechanization service provision including transplanters, mat nursery, and reapers.  The landless poor and women who used to harvest paddy manually are now providing services to the community. They have  been trained to use harvest paddy using reapers and are earning  higher incomes at USD 392‐503 per year compared to USD 45‐114 per year previously. This has resulted in an additional and very significant benefit to women farmers by reducing their drudgery and time poverty. While it took 120 hours to manually harvest a hectare of paddy, it only takes 8 hours using a reaper. 

A woman farmer in coastal Bangladesh tries her hand at mechanical harvesting using a rice reaper

The provision of long-term direct and indirect financial support by microfinance institutions (MFIs) has been helping women to build an asset base, thereby enhancing their ability to deal with manifold climatic shocks and stresses. Besides, MFIs run vocational training as well as awareness building programs to enhance the resilience of local communities.

Creating more sustainable opportunities for women in the agri-food systems by improving the enabling environment

We still have some ways to go in making women truly and fully resilient. Gender gaps continue to persist in access to land, finance, advisory, and markets, among others. We have much research and evidence that establish the gaps and also some understanding of what strategies work and which don’t. We have also realized that all women are not equal and intersectional factors play a major role in determining their identities and consequently their access to opportunities and resources. Retrogressive social norms need to be tackled. Synthesizing and deepening our understanding of what works for which social groups of women and what it takes to scale out gender transformative approaches (GTA) is urgent. Increasing domestic bargaining power of women and their leverage over agricultural production is key for them to pursue diverse climate-smart livelihoods.  The trade-offs of sustainable intensification and diversification in terms of social equity and who bears the costs and enjoys the benefits within a community and household are important.

There is a need to provide safe, reasonable, and fair credit and loans to cope with climate-induced loss and damage. Scaling the use of mechanization, which potentially has huge economic and health benefits for women, needs access to capital and subsidies. Linking women with markets and building their entrepreneurial skills are critical to expanding their income and employment opportunities. This should go hand in hand with social and behavioral change communication to address social and cultural norms. The importance of social capital and the role of women’s collectives has been well-established. There have been a myriad of examples of how these played a role in helping rural communities traverse their journey during the COVID-19 pandemic from multiple contexts. Equipping women through skills and leadership development to help them lead the implementation of need-based programs for  preparing for and managing the shocks would go a long way. 

Additionally, it is of critical importance to understand trade-offs between short-term coping strategies and longer term processes of adaptation for women and what influences their choices and the options to reduce their vulnerability. Differences in household structures and conjugal relations, the divisions of labor, and rights and responsibilities embedded therein shape adaptation. We need a better and deeper understanding of these dynamics.

Sarker, M. R. (2020). Technical efficiency and gender difference in time poverty of boro rice production in Bangladesh (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis). University of The Philippines Los Baños.

Dr. Ranjitha Puskur is IRRI’s Research Lead for Gender and Livelihoods in the Sustainable Impact Platform and Dr. Mou Rani Sarker is a PhD Scholar in the same platform.