Adaptive strategies: agricultural diversification, migration and collective action

In the substantially altered world of climate change, women and men both face unprecedented changes, with no standard practices to follow. Livelihood shifts brought about by climate variability, whether in terms of the choice of crops or diversification into non-farm employment, often involve migration from the home. With reduced labour availability, households including those headed by women, in the absence of their men, often turn to cash crops such as sugarcane or vegetables, which are resistant to climate stressors, but also less labour intensive (Udas et al., this volume). This however can result in over-extraction of soil nutrients and water, and while bringing in incomes, could negatively affect the quality of diets, nutrition and health. In this volume, we understand adaptation as the “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities” (IPCC 2019:542). From a gender perspective, this would entail integrating the needs of poor and marginalized women, but equally ensuring that they are not further marginalized during the adaptation process (Wigand et al. 2017; Kaufmann 2019; Rao et al. 2019).

Migration as adaptation

Migration from the hotspots is often viewed as a distress response, with people leaving home as their geographical remoteness limits their access to new livelihood opportunities. Migration can, however, have contradictory effects on both livelihoods and gender relations. In some situations, climate change-linked migration can lead to improving economic situations (Hazra et al. and Vincent et al., this volume). At the same time, there are parallel trajectories of exploitation and autonomy accompanying male migration. While women are left in charge of the home and everyday decision-making, their limited mobility and constrained access to public places and institutions accentuates their vulnerability and limits their adaptive capacities. Yet there is a difference between left-behind wives receiving remittances from their husbands, even occasionally, and female-headed households with no male support. Based on their study in Bangladesh, Vincent et al. conclude that fewer women in non-migrant households considered themselves happy compared to those living in migrant households. This is driven partly by women’s marital status, but also by the nature of migration itself, whether planned and supported, or forced.

The complexity of migration is visible in Nepal (Tamang et al., this volume), where men more than women have taken advantage of new market opportunities. Carrying the burden of agricultural work, women labour on average nearly 3.5 hours more than men every day. While much of this work involves drudgery, it interestingly also challenges traditional gender divisions of labour, with women taking over work designated as male, such as ploughing and hoeing (Rao et al. 2020). This added responsibility includes new roles for women such as hiring labour, selling livestock and engaging with off-farm activities, usually male prerogatives. Despite higher work and care burdens in often adverse working conditions, it appears that women’s fiscal agency is strengthened by changes in power relations within households with increased assets resulting from male migration (see Hazra et al., this volume).

Migration of women as an adaptation strategy is a new area of research and policy advocacy. The paper by Abbasi et al. (this volume) sets the scene for a better understanding of the processes involved, pointing also to the differences that exist within groups of women, as seen in the case of women in up-stream, mid-stream and down-stream areas of the river Indus in Pakistan. The subtle differences across agro-ecologies and social groups highlight the contextual nature of gender relations and roles, and the need for disaggregated perspectives in order to respond effectively to local needs and priorities. Yet as mentioned earlier, legal and policy frameworks, as in the cases of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, can either support or impede the opportunities available to different categories of women within these countries. The adaptation consequences of migration, then, depend not just on the nature of migration itself, but also on the gendered nature of social institutions that either facilitate or block equitable opportunities for women and men across contexts.

Collective action and resilience

Climate change and the resulting livelihood diversification, including male outmigration, has opened new spaces for women’s agency, individual and collective. While some scholars focus on the expansion of women’s roles within households (Hazra et al. and Singh in this volume), further research is required to explore the expansion of agency this may entail. Collective action has been the subject of a little more research, as in the Indian Bengal Delta, where women have established spaces for mutual support through self-help groups (Ghosh et al. 2018). In some instances, these groups have facilitated opportunities for women to seek social and economic stability, and avoid risky ventures including sex work. Such organizational space itself opens up a multitude of opportunities and networks, going beyond specific activities linked to microcredit (Kalpana 2017). In West Cham- paran, in addition to sugarcane cultivation, women left behind have turned to shared animal care as an adaptation strategy as in their perception it is less hazardous than agriculture, while also ensuring mutual support (Udas, Prakash and Goodrich this volume).

Women’s significant roles as agents of change in promoting climate-change mitigation action needs to be recognized and supported both individually and collectively (see Qaisrani and Batool, this volume). Rural women’s entrepreneurial potential provides one of the entry points enabling women to become change leaders, but this involves overcoming strong cultural constraints to women’s mobility and public participation, especially in rural settings. These papers all highlight the link between the two and the importance of collective action for overcoming extreme forms of vulnerability, including challenging entrenched forms of power and inequality.

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