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Gender Dimensions Of Environment: Adivasi Women In The Context Of Environmental Changes

According to the United Nations (IPCC 2007), there has been an increase in the average global temperature. This constant increase in temperature globally has had a multitude of negative impacts on various aspects of human life. Crop yields have decreased leading to increased food insecurity, water scarcity and desertification have increased, forest covers have started disappearing, rainfall patterns have changed and biodiversity has been largely impacted. While these developments have affected the global population at large, it has had significant implications for vulnerable communities like the indigenous populations. These communities are dependent upon the forests, forest produce and natural water resources. According to the UN IPCC (2007), the sections occupying the weakest economic positions are most vulnerable to climate changes as they have limited adaptive capacities and are mostly dependent on natural resources for food, water and sustenance. Interestingly, the relationship between vulnerability, economic positions and exclusion is evident. However, the gender hierarchy in social systems including indigenous populations, which render women at increased vulnerable positions is less evident.

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In the Adivasi communities of India, women work in the fields, collect forest produce and walk for miles to collect water. With the increased water scarcity, these women now have to walk extra miles and carry gallons of water to meet their household needs. According to Caruso (2017), women still carry most of the world’s water. Her research in India, Bolivia and Keneya, reveals that carrying water is a woman’s job, which is performed also by adolescent women, pregnant women and women suffering from chronic diseases. It should be noted that this phenomena is prevalent in the rural areas and among the Adivasi communities where populations are dependent on natural water bodies. Most women carry water multiple times on their heads, which creates pressure on their neck, back and feet causing various health problems. Changes in climate have resulted in an increased water scarcity, water bodies have started disappearing and hence the problems for rural/ Adivasi women in India have increased. They now have to cover larger distances to collect water.

Historically, Adivasi women have played a crucial role in managing local resources sustainably, conserving biodiversity and in providing food and water to their communities. Globalization, privatization, mining, displacement and migration have increased the vulnerabilities of Adivasi women by eroding their rights and control over land, destroying forests and alienating them from their habitats on which they depended for their livelihoods and sustenance, making them economically dependent on men after displacement and by employing them in the unorganized sectors. While feminization of poverty is a reality, it affects the Adivasi and the lower caste women, the most. Therefore, the adaptive capacity of Adivasi women to climate changes, environmental stress and environmental degradation is reduced drastically. In essence, destruction of forests and the overall environmental degradation pushes Adivasi women into dependency and poverty, which in turn negatively affects their adaptive capacities to environmental changes, which becomes hazardous for their health and sustenance.

The relationship shared between Adivasi women and nature is different from the relationship between Adivasi men and nature. This is so because women in Adivasi communities are the ones to collect forest produce, gather timber and other resources for the livelihoods and sustenance of their families and communities. One of the best examples of this is the Chipko Movement in Uttrakhand. Although it is a well-known ecological movement, which started in the 1970s against the Government’s policy to allow private industrial companies to use the forest and its products for profit making purposes, its relevance is far greater than a mere ecological movement. Firstly, this form of protest was not totally new and was similar to the protests in Rajasthan in the 1730s, the Chipko Movement was unique because it saw Adivasi women coming to the forefront, to hug trees and prevent their felling by the Government. Secondly, it is important to note that a large number of Adivasi men were not totally against the felling of trees because for them cutting down of forest cover also meant better infrastructure like roads. They wanted better roads because they were the ones who traveled to towns and cities for work, which was again the result of deforestation, displacement and migration. On the other hand, women were responsible for going to forests in order to collect timber, fruits, water, etc for both sustenance and livelihood. Hence, for them forests were life givers and they believed in having an interdependent mutually beneficial relationship with forests.

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In 2019, a report by Mittal, for the Oakland Institute stated that Adivasi and Dalit women were at the forefront of forest rights movement in India. In an interview with Roma Malik and Ashok Chowdhury of the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), Mittal questioned about the the high participation rate of Adivasi and Dalit women in AIUFWP, to which Malik responded as follows:

“While the AIUFWP actively strives to inculcate female leadership, it is however an organic development that many of the courageous struggles for forest rights have been led by Adivasi and Dalit women. One main reason for this is the division of labor within forest communities. A vast majority of the work, particularly that involves the assertion of community forest rights - the collection of firewood for example — is done by women. Although the women also do farm work, majority of the men not economically displaced into becoming migrant labor in urban areas, are primarily engaged in agricultural tasks. As a result, it is the women forest workers who first encounter the Forest Department’s brute power. Also, Adivasi and Dalit women who have historically never been strangers to state violence, better understand the importance of collective bargaining power and community rights, making them relentless defenders of the rights of their communities over the forestry commons.”

In 2021, a 65-year-old Adivasi woman Mayawati, led a 200 mile march to protest the opening of more coal mines in Chhattisgarh. The report by Suchitra (2021) stated that this was not a novel incident where an Adivasi woman in Chhattisgarh was leading the fight against exploitation of natural resources and the Adivasi community. She writes, “Adivasi women have a long history in Chhattisgarh of protecting its forests. From patrolling fires and deforestation to protesting environmental degradation, the women have been at the forefront of climate action.” (Suchitra 2021).

Thus it becomes evident that environmental degradation, while harmful for all, has significant negative effects for Adivasi women, rural women and women from the lower castes. Therefore, the fight to save the environment, especially the forests have often been fought by Adivasi women. Hence, it becomes important to look at the gender dimensions of environmental degradation and climate change with special focus on Adivasi women in India.

About the Author:- The author is a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her interest areas include Gender, Rights and Public Health. She has also served as a guest faculty of Political Science and International Relations, at the University of Delhi.


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