Consequences of climate change—floods, droughts, extreme weather, declining agricultural production—affect everyone. But in many developing countries, shifting temperature and precipitation patterns are making life especially hard for women and families. A new documentary, Weathering Change, tells the stories of women around the world who are shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden of climate change. Here are their stories.
Walking into the forest near her home, Sarada Chaudhary likes to look up. Above her head, branches weave together, allowing pockets of blue sky and glints of sun to peek through their leaves.
Look straight ahead, though, and the forest tells a different story. Trees stand awkwardly far apart in the dusty ground. Every few feet a stump pokes out from browned shrubbery.
“Compared to the past, a large part of the forest has been depleted,” Sarada says. “Now, we have to walk for more than an hour to fetch firewood. The forest has moved far from us.”
Infrequent rains have dried out the soil in parts of Nepal’s terai, a region of rolling plains on the Indian border where Sarada lives. Meanwhile, a growing population in the area has meant more trees chopped down for use as firewood.
“If the same situation continues on, I think the place will be a desert by the next 50 years,” she says.
Already, in the last 15 years, unpredictable temperatures and a disruption of rainfall patterns have taken their toll on Sarada’s community. The major occupation of the indigenous Tharu people is agriculture, and their livelihoods have been slowly drying up. Sarada estimates that this year, only one quarter of the people in her village will have enough to eat.
“In the past, we used to have enough to eat and we could sell what was left,” she says. “That is no longer possible. This year has been the worst. It is hard to survive.”
The situation is all too common in villages across the region, and increasingly, for farmers in places across the world. In many of the poorest areas, shifting precipitation patterns are affecting agricultural production, with dire consequences for families and communities. Deforestation is also occurring at alarmingly high rates, especially in areas of the world that have high levels of population growth. The world’s growing population, which will surpass 7 billion people in October, is likely to magnify these challenges.
Because of the agricultural hardships, most men leave the terai for India or the Gulf to look for work. The women are left “tangled with the household,” and must farm, collect firewood and water, cook, and take care of children all on their own.
“Even in this 21st century, women here have to live in such a pathetic state,” Sarada says. “Women should have knowledge about every field, be it education, health or climate change.”
Sarada doesn’t just talk about empowering women. She leads a women’s group, the Saljhundi Forest Committee, that focuses on family planning and forest conservation. Three times a month, the group holds training programs for about 60 women from the local area.
The women plant trees and lean about improvised bio-gas stoves that use cow dung instead of firewood for fuel. Sarada advises women on the various methods of contraception available, and the advantages of spacing pregnancies and choosing their family size. She tells them about her own two children, and how she has struggled to provide for them during the recent hard times.
“With an increase in population, everything gets affected,” she says. ““If there are more kids, the mother has to suffer more than the father. The impact is felt on education, health and other sectors as well. So, one has to give birth to only as many children as one wants.”
With most women, she doesn’t have to say much. More and more, they come up to her asking for contraceptives and telling her about their problems. While the older generation of women in her village typically had 10 to 12 children, among younger people, there are rarely more than four per household.
Sarada sees great potential in the women in her group to improve their own lives, and also to help preserve the forest. She is committed to making sure it will still be there for her children, and possible grandchildren. Still, she sometimes can’t help but worry about the future.
“The environment is closely knit with the life of man,” she says. “When we are experiencing so much change now, what is going to happen to the future generation?
Sarada’s story was cross-posted on Women’s eNews and Climate Himalaya.