Listening to women cotton farmers’ voices: The human cost of climate change

By Rudrani Oza, Senior Manager – Farm Innovations, CottonConnect

The effects of climate change are seriously impacting the lives of cotton farmers, especially women. CottonConnect’s discussions with women cotton farmers in India and Pakistan identified how climate change affects all areas of women’s lives – on the farm, caring for livestock, and in the home – and results in reduced income, time and health.

In my role with CottonConnect over the last six years, I have worked on social impact programmes to improve the health and livelihoods of women cotton farmers, and am aware of the specific needs of women in these communities. What I’m seeing now is how climate change contributes to the vicious cycle of poverty, from which it is so difficult for female farmers to break free.

Climate change impacts crops and reduces yield, leading to a reduction in farmers’ income. This means they can’t afford their basic needs and incur debts. Farmers take loans from money lenders to pay for the inputs for their crops. But then climate change affects the yield, and so the vicious cycle continues.

In order to break the poverty cycle, women farmers need alternative sources of income and techniques to counter the crop failure caused by climate change.

Crop failure is just one result of climate change. When CottonConnect conducted focus group discussions and in-depth interviews with local implementing partners in India and Pakistan, it became clear that climate change affects all areas of women’s lives – on the farm, caring for livestock, and in the home. In turn, this has a profound impact on their income, time and health.

The women in group discussions reported they are working longer hours in the farm, sometimes for eight to nine hours, because the climate change has increased their workload. For example, sudden, excessive rainfall can erode the top soil, and long, dry spells dry out the seeds, requiring another round of sowing. Increasing crop pests mean more time working in the field for pest control.

Many women in cotton farming communities raise livestock as an additional source of income.

“Our livestock is an additional source of income and helps us meet expenses during any emergency. Climate change has shrunk our earnings. We face a hard time arranging for water and fodder for them especially when the weather is extreme. It has affected the quality of milk they give and brought down our income,” explained a female farmer in Pakistan.

Women also told us they are spending more time working in the home. As the summers are drier now and water sources are drying, fetching water can take a lot of time and effort. Some women said they could previously prepare food in advance, but it now spoils in the heat, requiring them to cook multiple times.

The effects of climate change result in three key impacts.

Reduced income: The loss of productivity in livestock impacts women’s income the most, as this income is primarily theirs. Women and local partners shared that any reduction in contribution to household expenditure reduces women’s decision-making powers in the family.

“We know our challenges well. The biggest challenge in rural areas is livelihood. Soil, water and pest challenges have reduced yield and income. My husband had to migrate to the city for better paying employment, leaving me behind to take care of family and our farm,” said a female farmer in India.

Reduced time: The increased time spent looking after the farm, livestock and family means the women now have very little time for themselves or to socialise. Many women who previously earned money by doing craftwork like embroidery, or running a small business, no longer have time to do this.

“We are stuck in a 5am to 9pm work hour cycle, with a lot of home, farm and livestock responsibilities. It leaves us hardly any time to rest. Our work at home and field has increased, so we have the same or more expenses but the income is not much,” said a female farmer in Pakistan

Reduced health and wellbeing: With the rise in temperature and humidity, and weather extremes, women are more vulnerable to infectious diseases, allergy, and heat exhaustion. The group discussions raised issues such as women’s health and nutrition needs are placed last by both herself and her family.

CottonConnect’s recommendations for organisations that work directly with cotton farming communities are:

  1. Create gender-specific training on sustainable and socially responsible agricultural practices.
  1. Educate farmers to adapt their crop planning according to the changed climate cycle, providing contextualised training for each stage of the cropping according to the local geography and climate.
  1. Improve farm profitability and increase financial and market access, e.g. credit services, bank linkages, seed linkages and crop insurance for women as key stakeholders.

Fashion and textile manufacturers are being urged to incorporate climate change mitigation into their

re-build strategies. It is important to:

  1. Consider the human cost, not only the environmental cost, of climate change
  2. Develop supply chain climate change strategies with women in mind
  3. Choose sustainable agricultural programmes with a focus on training women

There is clearly a human cost attributable to climate change, as well as an environmental cost. Keeping women front and centre of climate change mitigation strategies is a fundamental part of building resilient supply chains.

Read more in Women in Cotton: Listening to Women’s Voices on the Effects of Climate Change

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