Mountain Women – Key Drivers of Change

Dr. Shalini Dhyani has written this article for Climate Himalaya Initiative’s Youth Leaders Speak Column. Shalini’s research focus is on understanding the functioning of mountain ecosystems in the context of livelihoods and women.

Changes in the fragile mountain ecosystems affect local people who are very much dependent on agriculture and forests. The economy in major mountain regions of the world is mostly dependent on women, and they are among the important actors of change and holders of significant knowledge and skills, which makes them crucial actors in mountain development processes. In the Indian Himalayan region too, they are said to be the backbone of the hill economy.

While working in few of the high altitude protected areas viz. Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary in Indian Himalayan region, I could understand their vital role in hill life running at a regular pace of 24 x 7. Starting from early morning, throughout the day and till late night you will find them engaged in one activity or another. These women have abundant traditional knowledge related to biodiversity management, especially in terms of preserving, enhancing, maintaining, and sustainably using agriculture, forests, and rangeland resources.

The collection of forest resources is a major activity of women in all parts of hills that requires a lot of time and energy. The Mahila Mangal Dals (village level women groups) have established effective control over management of the community forest, as collection of fuel wood, fodder and water are almost exclusively women centered work in the hills. These women control forest use decisions, which enables them to ensure that forest produce collection does not affect the periods of heavy agricultural work. During winters also when most of the area is under snow cover or severe cold, they remain busy collecting fodder from far reaches of the mountain forest.

During my close interaction with these women, I observed that unavailability of green forage during winters in higher Himalayan region has always been a significant issue that has added to the drudgery of women. Further, the degradation of existing forest due to various development activities (e.g. Road construction, Urban expansion, Hydro-power projects, etc.) and high migration of male members (for livelihood in urban centres) has added to their work load. As women in hills are mostly involved with activities related to agriculture, animal husbandry and fodder collection, they spend more manual energy in such activities. This leads to malnutrition and various health related problems.

These are the vital issues which mountain women deal with throughout their life. These women now feel that changing weather conditions (shift in rainfall patterns and snowfall months or increases in temperature) over last few decades have seriously affected their life in terms of decrease in food production from their subsistence farming practices. Further, the climatic changes have also resulted in shifts in prominent seasons like spring, resulting in off-seasonal or early blooms in wild flowers and fruits. These changes have pre-dominantly affected their small scale cottage industry based livelihoods.

Therefore, their traditional practices and their knowledge are two important factors related to the impact of climatic change, their resilience and adaptation towards such changes. Their traditional knowledge and skill set, especially in the context of biodiversity conservation and their different needs and priorities in ecosystem services have rarely been documented or brought to the attention of policy makers. Also women’s capacity and contributions in conserving and managing the biodiversity in the region had seldom recognized and acknowledged.

In my view, there are so many ways by which the livelihood of these hill women’s could be secured to support their families. A few of them are;

  • Improvement in their educational status, with is directly linked to reduction in their work load. Therefore, I feel that there is the need of better government actions for subsidized and easily accessible fuel and fodder, which will reduce their regular forest jaunts.
  • Availability and access to market without middle man’s interference will also help women in hills to get better prices of their local produces (e.g. agriculture and NTFPs-non timber forest produces) and earn economy.
  • Bio prospection of their agriculture and wild edible (fruits, flowers etc.) produces which could be one of the best options to generate economy for women in mountain region.
  • Other options like, ecotourism, home stay and adventure tourism are the emerging business options, which will not only help in generating economy but also improve their life style while using local opportunities.

These are some of the options that if taken up wisely by local women folk of mountains will help them to secure their livelihood and improve overall living status of their families.

There is also an urgent need to integrate gender perspectives into biodiversity research, management, conservation policies, strategies, and actions. Such an informative database will provide the rationale for gender mainstreaming in biodiversity conservation and management activities and will also suggest ways to address gender inequalities, while it will facilitate inclusive policy development for biodiversity conservation and management.