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Women at the frontline of climate change adaptation

Women make strides in mainstreaming climate adaptation approaches on the ground. Odisha is setting a model that brings women to the forefront of agriculture and natural resources management in their villages. Manisha Shah reports

Kalyani Dash, Soudamini Rout, and Gita Rani Satpathy are three women from Odisha who were a part of self-help groups (SHGs) in their villages. Just before the pandemic hit in 2020, they joined Odisha Livelihoods Mission (OLM) as Krishi Mitra to support the shift in farm practices in their villages. After a continuous journey of learning and practising, they have been able to convince many farmers in their villages to shift to natural and climate-resilient farming practices. It hasn’t been an easy journey for any of them but their stories can inspire thousands of other women to take active charge and change the course of climate change impacts in their villages.

Nearly 75 per cent of the full-time workers on Indian farms are women and they collectively produce around 80 per cent of India’s food. Their contribution, however, continues to be unseen and economically unrecognised as a large proportion (71 per cent) continue to take up low productive and marginal jobs such as farm and informal labour.

The case is no different in natural resource management (NRM). Women are, traditionally, closely connected with natural resources and their informal management. Studies suggest that women clearly outdo men in terms of their involvement in the use and management of natural resources including water and forests, which are amongst the key resources for climate change adaptation.

As the threats posed by climate change stare us in the face and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for the implementation of the adaptation measures that many countries have already planned for on paper. Amongst the adaptation interventions outlined by the IPCC Report (Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability), a large number involve natural resource-related interventions (such as water management in irrigation, rainwater harvesting, soil moisture conservation, or ecosystem-based approaches such as diversification, land restoration, agro-ecology, and agro-forestry).

In the Indian context, given the large number of women actors involved in the informal management of soil, water, forests, implementing any adaptation measures cannot happen without women leading the action. Since most of the local institutions that manage the natural resources are built on traditional power structures instead of democratic procedures, women’s participation in them has been found to be lagging in most places. Despite the improving Human Development Index in most states of India, women’s real participation in decision-making and economically rewarding activities continues to be poor. Odisha, however, is setting a model that brings women to the forefront of agriculture and natural resources management in their villages.

In the last two years, Odisha has demonstrated that with the right training, collaborations, and use of technology, it is possible to enable women to lead climate-resilient practices in agriculture. Building on the years of work with women’s SHGs started under Mission Shakti, Odisha Livelihoods Mission (OLM) is now training thousands of women as Krishi Mitra (farming friends) who are taking charge of facilitating change in behaviors and farm practices of fellow farmers to revert to traditional natural farming methods, which are more resilient to impacts of climate change compared to the current chemical farming. They are also helping plan for soil and water conservation works to enhance the overall water security in their village.

Fighting numerous social hurdles, over 2000 Krishi Mitras, have been able to build their skills and capacities through training and skill-building session – a major portion of which was online and hence, easier for them to attend while balancing responsibilities at home. Two years since the start of the journey, hundreds of them have been able to educate and influence male farmers to try out better farming practices.

Many of them recount the early days when it was impossible for them to get male farmers to listen to them, let alone agree to learn. But after having established their knowledge and skills by showcasing better yields and cost-benefit ratios in their farms and plots of some other progressive farmers, their services are now being sought by more farmers. Currently, they are salaried and are paid Rs 3000 per month by the state through the Gram Panchayat Level Federations (GPLF).

This confidence in their own abilities and skills is a result of the continuous support provided by the state and civil society organisations, which have collaborated to organise regular and frequent interactions between the cohort and experts. The Krishi Mitras also receive digital content to revise and refer to when they need it which has given a huge boost to their understanding of the subject. Each of them has been digitally foot-printed by OLM so that they can be made available as skilled resources for any relevant future programs in the State.

Odisha’s example shows with the right support and knowledge, women can take up skilled and intellectual roles and break the traditional and cultural barriers that keep them in low productive jobs. Other programs involving water, forests, agriculture, and any form of natural resource management must aim to learn from the OLM model. The key lesson here is that women are not only climate-critical stakeholders but can also be experts to guide communities towards better adaptation measures.


July – September 2022