Empowering women on the frontlines of climate change

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On any given morning in the locality of Al-Rahad in Sudan, women like Hawa Abdullah, dressed in bright colours, can be seen turning up the earth of their land or scattering seeds on their tractors.

While the scene is age-old, the number of women farmers—and those performing traditionally male roles—has grown out of the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. Al Rahad, in the North Kordofan State, like other regions in the Sahel, has suffered from increasing temperatures, uneven distribution and variability of rainfall, and drought. In turn, this has affected the livelihoods of pastoralists and farmers, with men migrating to the capital of Khartoum or other cities in search of employment.

In turn, women—whose traditional roles have been caring for children and performing household chores—have stepped into the role of providers. By renting fields for their livestock and crops, they have been able to sell goods at the market and earn a small income.

To help tackle the effects of climate change, the joint programme “Promoting Gender-Responsive Approaches to Natural Resource Management for Peace” implemented by UN Environment, UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme, has spent the last two years training women like Abdullah in farming, natural resource management and conflict resolution. The project in Sudan is the first under the joint programme.

“It is the women who are left on the frontlines of both climate change and climate change-related conflict,” said Silja Halle, the joint programme coordinator. “Climate change is leading to shifts in livelihood patterns that are resulting in men either migrating away from the communities to find alternative employment or changing the migration patterns in such a way that women, instead of travelling with the men, now stay within the community.”

The project trained women to use rain-fed farming techniques, harvest gum Arabic—a staple export of the region, acquire land through the Native Administration and sesame and sorghum seeds from the Ministry of Agriculture, and access credit from local financial institutions.

A survey following the end of the project revealed that 87 per cent of the participating women reported increased income from the crops sold at the market and that the backyard gardens produced enough food to cover their daily needs. The cooperative farms also brought together women from both farming and nomadic groups, creating greater social unity and facilitating discussions on the management of natural resources.

“We have benefited so much from the training programmes as well as from the advice provided by the experts,” said Abdullah. “We know now the techniques of farming, the distance that is needed to plant seeds and other skills that have increased our capacities.”

Another aspect of the programme looked at mitigating conflicts that have resulted from climate change. Tensions between pastoralists and farmers have escalated in recent times over limited land and resources. According to the Al Rahad Conflict Mediation and Peacebuilding Centre, nine violent conflicts took place between July 2016 and April 2018, resulting in the deaths of 24 people.

Due to cultural taboos, women have traditionally been excluded from the Jodeya, a community-organized conflict resolution process. But now, with a predominant female community and women taking on both caretaking and breadwinning, women’s participation in resource governance has gained standing.

Through the project, women for the first time led dialogue forums to encourage conversations between farmers and pastoralists on natural resources and how to find solutions on the most pressing environmental problems. Following its end, they are now systematically included as part of all conflict mediation processes and Jodeya meetings.

Additionally, a new community body for peacebuilding called the Natural Resource Management Sub-Committee was set up, comprising of eight women and four men. As a result, perceptions of women’s capacities, by both women and men, saw a radical shift, with 100 per cent of the community members surveyed agreeing that women had an important role to play in respect to conflict resolution over natural resources.

“We don’t really understand the social shifts that are happening because of climate change,” said Halle. “We often talk about climate change leading to conflict and that narrative is relatively well known. But understanding the social shifts that are happening and the increasing feminization of communities on the ground is not as eminent.”

Following the end of the project, on their own initiative, local women mobilized their communities and local authorities, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Forests National Corporation, to plant 6,000 trees to further help fight soil degradation.

The project clearly demonstrated that in the context of climate change, natural resources are a strong entry point for women’s inclusion in peacebuilding and that incorporating women can lead to sustained peace.

“Women need to know their roles in the preservation of natural resources such as water, pastures and agricultural land,” said Sabail Al-Haj Hussain, a member of the local Women for Peace Association. “They need to learn how to resolve small frictions that arise [from scarcity of resources].”

The project is the first pilot conducted by the Joint Programme on Women, Natural Resources and Peace. Another project is ongoing in Colombia, with further projects planned in the Great Lakes region of Africa and the Sahel. An online Knowledge Platform on Gender, Natural Resources, Climate and Peace has also been launched to bring together practitioners, researchers and policymakers, to share resources on the intersection of gender, natural resources, climate change and peace.