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Structural power, gender and climate change - Part 2: Dr. Amina Maharjan

Host: Hello and thank you for joining the Climate Change Talks podcast series. This is part two of our discussion on structural power, gender and climate change. In the context of the many socioeconomic and environmental changes and progress across the globe, challenging established power relations and fostering transformational approaches for socially inclusive resilience has been key for enhancing livelihood for the most vulnerable communities in the Global South. Yet, shifting power relations and social norms to effectively respond to the local impact of these changes is no easy feat.

Today, we have Dr. Amina Maharjan, Livelihoods Specialist on Migration for the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, or ICIMOD, in Nepal, who will discuss the link between migration, climate change and power relations.

Thank you for being here, Amina.

Dr. Maharjan: Thank you.

Host: Until recently, ICIMOD has been working with the UK Department for International Development, and IDRC Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia program, or CARIAA, for almost seven years in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region through its Himalayan Adaptation, Water and Resilience, or HI-AWARE, consortium. In one of our previous episodes, we had the opportunity to discuss with Dr. Ken De Souza, that you might know—

Dr. Maharjan: Yes.

Host: —from DFID, who has explained what is CARIAA and how does the consortium model work. Can you describe in a bit more detail the HI-AWARE specifically, the HI-AWARE consortium? And if you have some novel insight coming out of the research.

Dr. Maharjan: Out of the four CARIAA consortium, HI-AWARE is one. That is focusing on the glacier and snowmelt fed in river basins. We basically work in four river basins in four countries in South Asia: Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. And our whole focus is on adaptive capacities in these four river basins. That’s what HI-AWARE works [sic]. And personally, me, I joined not right from the beginning but somewhere in the middle of HI-AWARE, but I’m so happy that I joined this very interesting consortium, because we had core members—for instance in India, we had TERI; from Pakistan, PARC; Bangladesh, we had BCAS. I’m not going into the full forms. And Nepal of course, ICIMOD. And ICIMOD was also taking the lead into some of these activities within the HI-AWARE.

I’m involved more in the migration and climate change adaptation linkages within the HI-AWARE. And we have contributed to novel insights. My work is more into looking into this linkage between migration and climate change adaptation. And this is where I was involved in HI-AWARE. We had done a couple of studies—let me concentrate on one, which was based on household surveys of more than 2,000 households across all these river basins. And we tried to see in this environmental hotspot—because this is an area which faces so many natural climate-induced disasters as well as flow onset changes. But the people have various capacity to adapt to these changes. We wanted to see, in such a context, how does migration play out? Because this is also an area with very high migration. How does migration play in the life of people in this hotspot area? That was our objective.

And we did this study in all the four river basins: Gandaki, Teesta, Indus, and Upper Ganga, so in these four river basins. And for us, the most interesting finding is whenever you are talking about migration, the global debate is more into the international migration. But what we found is it’s mostly from these areas, it’s the internal migration that stands out. Almost 80 percent of the migrants were internal, and international was mostly south-south, so mostly people going to the Gulf countries, or Southeast Asian countries. That was a very strong finding. And I think we are in—we conform also with other studies like the World Bank has recently come up with, the Groundswell report, that also highlights the same thing.

And in our region, in the Hindu Kush Himalayan, for instance, we just launched an assessment report. And this is something we have also similar findings, that internal migration is so important, and you can see the climate change impacts. But then, it does not get the importance that it deserves. This is one of our very important findings. Second, of course, migration is predominantly male, but that’s a known thing.

But what was also interesting is the role that migration—and when I say “migration” now, henceforth, I’d be speaking more about level migration. You have displacement because of climate-induced hazards, people have to move out from these particular areas. That’s a different thing. We are not touching upon that. But even level migration, so when a household sends one or two members outside to work, but the household remains in their own places. Even level migration, what was interesting was the impact it has, the positive impact it has on the households’ capacity to adapt to climate change. These are the new findings, I would say, from HI-AWARE.

Host: Just to come back on what you said earlier, that 80 percent of the migration is internal, why do you think that it doesn’t get the same attention as international migration?

Dr. Maharjan: Interesting question.

Dr. Maharjan: To be honest, do I have a straight answer to that? No. It’s also the visibility. Because somehow, internal migration is not so tangible. People are not flying on the planes, not crossing over the boats, so that invisibility probably is one of the reasons why it doesn’t get that kind of attention that’s required. Also, secondly, most of this is informally happening. It’s not… That also, the tangibility, it’s hidden because of that informality as well. But what our research has shown is internal migration is so important for even survival, even to cope with the kind of changes that this region is seeing.

Host: When we talk about migration and climate change, do you… You addressed that, but then this is not something really now that is on the forefront of conversation. It’s out there, but people don’t really talk about it much. Can you a bit elaborate more on what is the link between climate change and its future impact, or present sometimes, in migration?

Dr. Maharjan: This debate or discussion about climate change and migration, it’s been there for some time now. But mostly in this debate, migration is presented as a kind of problem, as a kind of challenge. Which in a way, yes. But that is oversimplifying a complex phenomenon. You have studies showing that climate change doesn’t have any impact on migration decisions, but now you also have studies showing that it does, indirectly or directly. What we found is climate change does actually have a direct impact on the household’s migration decisions. Because migration decision per se is a very complex process.

And in one of the working papers from HI-AWARE, when we report—it’s self-reporting. When we asked people, “Why have you decided to send a member out for work,” then obviously, the answer is economic factors, in self-reporting. But we often forget that when you have one hour, asking maybe 50, 60, 100 questions, you don’t have time to dig out the nuances. And this is why now we are in the process of analyzing… you’re using other methods, like regression and so on, to see what are the factors that actually impact. And we now realize that in many contexts, the perception of changing climate, or the experience of loss of property, or being temporarily displaced because of climate-induced hazards has an impact on the decision to migrate.

And it’s also very contextual. In the four river basins, we found four different results. And we were at one point struggling, “OK, how do we even interpret it?” And then, we realized that if you bring the context, then things start to get very clarified. What we found that there are two: vulnerability is one, vulnerability to climate change’s impacts leading to migration decisions; but also, most of the migrants are young people. And therein comes the aspiration dimension as well. In both vulnerability and aspiration, changing aspiration of the youth, you see this migration decision is taking place. I wouldn’t say that there’s no link; there is definitely a direct link, but how big a role climate change plays depends on the context.

Host: How does gender and power relations kind of falls in?

Dr. Maharjan: See, whenever we talk about migration, migration itself is highly gendered. It’s mostly men and of certain age groups that migrate. It’s not only in HI-AWARE; we also have this cross-consortia paper that we are working on where we have also seen the cases in semi-arid regions as well as in deltas, so the other three consortia. And we found it is true in all the cases: it’s mostly men and of certain age groups, so young men, who migrate. When you have such a gendered process going on, it is bound to have a very gendered impact also, not only at a household level.

Because another dimension of migration is once a few households start, very quickly a demonstration effect kicks and others start. You have kind of population composition changes at the community level. You have villages, for instance, in the Gandaki Basin, or in Ganga in India, where it’s difficult to find young men in the villages. Now, we are talking of a context where young men are absent and it’s going to have a huge impact in every sector of private as well as public life. This is where the gender comes into the picture, because we are talking about now women being forced to take on new roles that they would not have otherwise taken up, because of absence of men. You have a very new kind of changes that’s happening which has both positive and negative impacts of course.

Host: Do you see those changes as transformational?

Dr. Maharjan: At the moment, no, I would not say that. Because the change is happening on the ground, so now women have to do certain work that they would not do earlier, let’s say in public spheres, but the structures have not changed. Be it formal or informal structures. The power dynamic is the same, the social norm, which is very intimately linked with the power dynamics, has remained the same. That’s why it’s very difficult to see any kind of transformative change. What you often see is women trying to grapple with these changes in absence of that supportive system structure in place. Unless that happens, transformative change is not—I don’t see that happening.

But if there is a change in the structures, be it at community level, household level, or at national level, then definitely there is a scope for the transformative changes that we have been talking in the gender discourse for a long time. Because it’s an opportunity where women are forced to take certain roles, so why not take this opportunity?

Host: But don’t you think that even if now, you don’t see any potential for… well, maybe not potential, but maybe transformation, but do you think it can be a kind of bottom-up push because the women are forced to take those roles? And now, with climate change’s effect becoming more and more felt, that those realities—this becoming a stronger reality. Do you think it can have this kind of bottom-up push that will challenge those structures?

Dr. Maharjan: I am an optimist, so I believe that’s the way to go for sure. It’s not happening at the moment, but I think that’s a direction one has to go. Otherwise, collectively, everybody loses. We are talking about climate change adaptation. Let’s say in agriculture sector. The entire agriculture sector is now on the shoulders of women. If you don’t put them at the centre and you start to plan things around them, it’s not going to happen. If you want a transformative change in climate change adaptation, you have to have transformative change in the gender roles before. It is a prerequisite.

I think it has to happen, but what frustrates me at the moment is the tendency to maintain the status quo and to somehow ignore or try to change. That whole discourse globally on antimigration is not only a Global North phenomenon, it’s also in the Global South. Everybody wants to stop migration, because it’s bringing all these changes. It’s bringing women at the centre stage, the women’s voices are increasing, and there is a kind of feel of insecurity across different layers of stakeholders. Even with researchers, we were so happy trying to mainstream gender and now, suddenly, we realize that, oh, it’s women, women and women, and we have to do it. And I don’t think we are ready to deal with it.

It’s not only government, it’s us as researchers or implementers. We are struggling to have women’s participation now, suddenly. Yes, we have a lot of women participating, but how to really shift that balance of power? It’s something we all are, I think, grappling with. But to be honest, I don’t see any other option than to accept the ground reality and try to change in our mindsets the structures and policies.

Host: And as you said, talking and addressing those power relations is difficult, especially because they are intimately linked with social norms. How does that translate into your—I won’t say everyday work, but in general, into your research? And what are the difficulties that you have faced so far?

Dr. Maharjan: Let me give you an example. I started my career as an agriculturist because my whole training was in agriculture. But now, sometimes, when I’m speaking with my agriculture sector colleagues, we always end up—the discussion becomes, “How do you stop migration?” Because it’s having a negative impact on agriculture. And I’ve been trying to tell my colleagues that migration is not the problem for the proper farming agriculture sector in the mountains. It’s the other way around. The proper farming agriculture has a lot to do with the households being forced to migrate. But it’s a very difficult task. I have been in panels where I keep talking it and somebody summarizes saying, “How do you stop migration?”

It’s a real, big challenge that I face every day. And I think the best way forward is really trying to understand the changing ground realities. Because those have shifted. How do you ignore realities and then still manage to be relevant? Because then, you also because irrelevant very quickly. This is the biggest struggle. But once that acceptance happens, then I think there is a lot to move forward. But personally, for me, it’s the biggest struggle.

Just last month, I was in a panel discussion at a national conference on gender and migration. And people started to talk about the social cost of migration, how the cultures are breaking down, marriage is breaking down, and everybody is blaming migration for that. I’m like, “We should stop talking about women’s empowerment if you don’t want changes. Because you are, in one, saying that we need to empower women, we need to have more voices; and second, you are saying because this is too much [sic] voices, women are independently deciding, ‘This is it. Beyond this, I can’t take it.’ How do you reconcile the two things?” I have been—I had to stop, “Let’s stop talking about women’s empowerment; or empowerment will lead to conflict, let’s not shy away from conflict.” Because power, always, change in power has always ended with conflict. The approach is: how do you minimize that conflict?

And also, this is where I think we need to focus: how do you minimize conflict? How do you bring that acceptance? Because collectively, everybody would lose if we… And everybody of us becomes irrelevant if we don’t accept this new ground reality.

Host: So then, if I understand well, it’s that we are trying to empower or to address power relations without changing the context, the social context that those power relations occur in. So then, how do you think we can—I mean, yes, facing realities. But on the ground concretely, how do you think we can shake a little bit those structures so that the power relation actually changes?

Dr. Maharjan: That’s a difficult question.

Dr. Maharjan: But what I feel is there is a need for all of us to try to understand these difficult and complex structures that we are talking about. Because the social norms and cultures that we understand has so much of a link with this patriarchal thinking. And the change that we are requiring that is actually required now is a change in that mindset, in that thinking. It’s not going to be—and let’s not be… Let’s be realistic, it’s not going to be an easy battle or a short… There is not a short-term solution for this. It’s long-term thinking. And this is where, I think, from a researcher’s perspective, the need for more transdisciplinary approach—it’s not only agriculture, it’s trying to solve everything else, or any particular discipline.

The need is really for research and policies based on this evidence collected through research on how do you make those structural changes, but being aware that there will be conflict. How do you make the other stakeholders understand and bring about those changes? You need to have a much more innovative base to start bringing a wide range of stakeholders into the discussion, and really, it’s the… something I really believe… bringing the voices and participation of the people into the research, and the dissemination, not only as research participants but as research stakeholders.

Host: How do you think… I would say us at IDRC can support your work—or not only IDRC, but other organizations can actually support the work to shake those structures and actually bring transformational change?

Dr. Maharjan: First, let’s have a nice discussion around it.

Dr. Maharjan: Because as I said, it’s a complex process, a long-run process. And really, there needs to be a brainstorming around how do you bring these changes. And that’s possible not only by changing women’s agency but also structure needs to change. That’s what I feel is very important.

Host: Thank you. Thank you very much for providing us with such insight, and we can really feel your passion about it. Thank you for coming to discuss with us.

Dr. Maharjan: Thank you so much for this opportunity.