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Women hurt by lack of say in South Asia's environment policy

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 22 Aug 2014 00:15 GMT
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Maheshwari Vellupillai, a 53-year-old single mother, stands near her onion plot in the village of Oddussudan in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Amantha Perera
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COLOMBO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Sri Lankan government officials and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) put together a $260 million rural water project in 2010 in the North Central and Eastern Provinces, they made sure women would have a major role in managing the scheme.

In Talpotha, a village in the rural Polonnaruwa District, women formed the core management group for the ADB-funded water project. They listed over 200 households connected to water pipes and regularly visit each household to check that usage does not exceed agreed limits.

“No one can play tricks with us because we know how much water is needed for household work (as) we are the ones who do most of that work,” said management committee member Liyadurige Siyriyawathi. Committee members fine households that use too much water, which helps ensure the community has water throughout the year, she said.

Women holding decision-making positions are still a rarity in much of South Asia. Despite a combined population of some 1.7 billion, at least half of them female, the region still lags behind in empowering its women to take decisions on environmental and other issues, according to research by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“Women can be effective foot soldiers, but for that they need to be empowered,” said Lorena Aguilar, a senior gender adviser at IUCN who oversees the organisation’s Environment and Gender Index, launched last year to monitor gender equality and women’s empowerment in making and carrying out environmental policies.

Aguilar attributes women’s lack of empowerment in South Asia in part to the role they have historically played in the region – by and large that of raising children and running the household, and taking little part in public life.  

Maxine Burkett, an academic at the University of Hawaii who specialises in climate change policy, agrees. “Because of their primarily domestic role, women lack access to the decision making and implementation processes. That leaves them disempowered and vulnerable” in the face of climate change.

The IUCN index shows that the five South Asian countries included - Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - all languish in the bottom half of the 72-nation index. Sri Lanka, the highest ranked, is at 38, with a ‘lower moderate’ performance, with others categorised as ‘weak’ performers. Pakistan ranked lowest at 67. Countries like Malawi, Mongolia and Vietnam have better scores than any South Asian nation.

SEARCHING FOR WATER

The impact of the absence of women from public life is clear. IUCN research shows that women and young girls in some parts of rural India spend over 30 percent of their time looking for safe water as fluctuating rain patterns lead to long droughts. The same is true of rural northern and eastern Sri Lanka, currently baked by a 10-month drought.

The lack of action to address such problems suggests male-dominated governments give relatively low priority to such basic needs, experts said.

In Bangladesh many pregnant women suffer from eclampsia, partly because their drinking water has a high salt content. But “they have hardly any say in how water resources are managed in their villages,” Aguilar noted.

Experts and local women say policymakers, virtually all of them men, need to make women active partner in decision making in order to address the problems affecting them.

Getting women involved has already shown benefits. In Bangladesh, a project supported by GrameenPhone has provided women living in areas prone to natural disasters with mobile phones so that they can not only receive alerts but also inform the authorities of possible dangers.

But IUCN research found that among the 14,000 Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) that manage 1.2 million hectares of Nepal’s forests, women were among the members of executive committees - but their roles were often silent and token.

“That should not be the case. Their role should be valued,” Aguilar said.

As women are responsible for 43 percent of the world’s food production, their role in ensuring food security will be increasingly vital as rising temperatures reduce harvests, she predicted.

“Some of our research suggests that we could achieve a 17 percent reduction in the 870 million people who go to bed hungry every night if women were given a larger role in (managing) environmental issues,’ she said.

(Editing by Tim Pearce; timothy.pearce@thomsonreuters.com

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