cseas nl75 Sunitha Bisan
Chairperson, Environment and Climate Change,
National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO)

Claiming Spaces: Experiences of Indigenous Women of Sarawak for Space in Climate Change Dialogues

The effects of climate change can no longer be ignored or denied. Asia Pacific, as a region, is most vulnerable to natural disasters as it accounts for 91% of global deaths, 49% of global total damage in the last century (IFAD 2009), and it is estimated that about four billion people will be affected by water shortages at least one month in a year, with nearly half residing in China and India (Mekonnen and Hoekstra 2016).

In 2014, a scoping study was undertaken with indigenous women leaders of Sarawak to promote community participation in climate related decisionmaking and discussions. The scoping study for Malaysia is part of a regional study initiative of the Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW) and her partners in both South and Southeast Asia regions. The other participating countries were Bangladesh, Lao PDR, Indonesia, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan, and the Philippines.

The regional initiative found that climate change discussions still lack a participatory and inclusive process of inclusion. The usual reasons offered were that climate change issues are highly technical and the public has a limited understanding to allow for meaningful participation. Our collective challenge was to create as well as claim public spaces to allow for the voice of the people, especially that of women who are directly impacted from climate-related and environmental impacts, to be heard and be part of decision making processes.

Arnstein (1969) has rightly argued that not all participation is created equal in her “ladder of participation” model. The scoping studies evidenced how the allocation of spaces actually reinforce gendered power relations. Spaces and opportunities for citizen participation in policy processes, legal frameworks and programs in general were seen to remain at a rhetorical level. The greater need of inclusion if practiced is a mere token gesture that does not respect community viewpoints. This gendered power-relation permeates the global discussion of Climate Change even within discussions that were held during the Paris Agreement (where I was present). The greater risk of reinforcing status quo and patterns of exclusion, intended or otherwise, increases social injustice.

Fig.1 Floodings are a growing and frequent challenge for local women at Ulu Baram as a result of deforestation.

The commitment for inclusion in decision-making is particularly important as the Asia-Pacific region is one of the most vulnerable regions where more than 100 million people are affected by climate-related natural disasters annually (ADB 2011). Historical research over the last 40 years shows the number of people affected by flooding increased significantly from 29.5 to 63.8 million, compounded by an estimated 120.7 million people living at the frontline of cyclone-hit areas (ESCAP and UNISDR 2012). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reaffirms this in their Fifth Assessment Report stating, “differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic factors and from multidimensional inequalities often produced by uneven development process” (IPCC 2014).

The Scoping Study

A scoping study for Malaysia was embarked upon to investigate the possible linkages and opportunities for action on climate change in connection with sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). In Malaysia, the decision was to focus on the voices of the indigenous women of Sarawak based on their current challenges as a result of changes in land-use patterns and increased climate events. This study began with an overall review of climate change and SRHR issues in Malaysia, then explored how climate change and SRHR impact upon indigenous communities with feedback from indigenous women’s leaders in Sarawak. The study’s further aim was to discuss key implications for policy development and conduct advocacy on the issues raised.

Fig.2 “Why it is important to safe our forests.” A success by the communities at Baram that stopped the building of the Baram Dam.

This initiative was undertaken as research into the impacts of climate change on SRHR is only just emerging. Recent studies have found that women, particularly the poor and marginalized, suffer disproportionately more than men from the impacts of climate change. Their vulnerability is related to a lack of access to information, health care, social, natural, physical, financial and political resources to respond, adapt and cope to during and after natural disasters and environmental crisis. (Dankelman 2011). As a result, women need to do hard labor for the wellbeing of their households and communities, face hardship due to difficult access to food, water and livelihood, and are more likely to suffer from ill health and poor nutrition.

Importantly, the scoping study showed that there is a multitude of discourses; for example, how population is linked to degradation, fossil fuel dependence, reducing carbon emissions and natural resource management issues. These, in turn, influence how the inter-linkages between climate change and SRHR are viewed and acted upon by both government and communities. This is significant as the study is not only seeking to analyze what is visible in respect to climate related issues, but on existing historical as well as highly invisible institutional imbalances that discriminate women and communities.

Our findings affirmed that there are inter-linkages between climate change and SRHR revealed that the different views impede attention to include SRHR issues into climate change debates and dialogues and are greatly seen in how disaster reduction planning is advanced. The study has highlighted the need to enhance community resilience through the recognition of women’s leadership and participation. This is significant as existing institutional imbalances have “cloaked” issues and made women’s needs invisible in climate change discussions and related actions.

Carving a Path

Advocacy is critical to highlight these grounded realities. The first step in this process was to encourage local conversations around the issues of climate change and its impact. These conversations are important especially at a time where our development pathways promote clashes with our natural environment through consumerism and intense globalization. Conversations, including story telling, become critical to unite people in a world that divides and marginalizes.

The regional scoping studies evidenced that climatic changes are already impacting participating communities. In Malaysia, the women leaders in Sarawak shared how their communities increasingly bear witness to more intense, frequent and persistent climate-related natural disasters and human-induced environmental degradation. They further shared risks in areas experiencing logging and corporate farming on women’s sexual safety and rights.

“Before we were free to plant. Now this is limited and we have no place to find food. (Dulu Orang Asal bebas bercucuk-tanam. Sekarang sudah terhad tiada tempat cari makan lagi.)” Participants’ Feedback

Key findings from our Malaysia study mirrors that of the other seven participating countries that include non-accessibility to life-sustaining resources such as food and nutrition, clean water, healthcare services, infrastructure and livelihood. There is a serious need to prioritize SRHR as a focus to build resilience in changing climate conditions. It is important to emphasize strengthening capacity and sustainability livelihood of communities through the recognition of women’s leadership and participation on management of natural ecological systems to buffer climate impacts.

The pathway forward is to ensure gender responsiveness to address existing institutional imbalances that make women’s needs invisible in climate change discussions. A review of policy documents and related documents in the Malaysian context has also shown that climate related policies tended to be genderneutral. There is urgent need to reexamine and transform governance structures to apply gender responsiveness in climate change adaptation and mitigation actions.

Gender responsiveness also brings recognition to the fact that men and women are not, and should not be treated as homogenous groups. In fact, individuals are influenced by age, ethnicity, locality, education, and income. Therefore, any solutions towards adapting to climate change need to take a closer look at the intersections within the lived lives of women, men, girls, and boys. This call is echoed in the ASEAN Gender Mainstreaming Guidelines for Climate Adaptation and Mitigation adopted in 2016.

Gender sensitivity helps increase the ability to bridge community needs within policy discussions. These conversations are a means to aid policy makers and to ensure the design of adaptation and mitigation plans towards reducing carbon emissions, reversing biodiversity loss, and alleviating poverty. There is a need to reduce disparity and provide mechanisms for women to gain resources that include tenure to forestlands for their livelihoods and subsistence, as well as improve their participation in adaptation decision-making processes. In consultations and conversations, we saw that women are at the frontline as key providers of households. Interviews and discussions further showed that women and their households are contributing to adaptation through a variety of strategies including diversification of income source and social networking.

When disaster strikes, women and girls bear the brunt. In a landmark study from the London School of Economics, Neumayer and Plümper (2007) found that the higher the magnitude of disaster, the larger the gender gap. Their analysis of 141 natural disasters between the years 1981 to 2002 revealed that women have lower chances of survival, and those who survive are less resilient. In the 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh, Indonesia 55 to 70% of the victims were women. Women who were already impoverished lost their meager livelihood and fell into greater depths of poverty.

The same empirical study also showed that women and girls are more likely to be exposed to gender-based violence and trauma during these occurrences. In the aftermath of disasters, women lack access to essential services, including obstetric and gynecological services. This makes them more vulnerable to sexual and reproductive health risks and injustices, such as sexual violence and sexuallytransmitted infections; other communicable diseases (during and after pregnancies) such as malaria and dengue; pre- and postnatal complications (during and after disasters); and unwanted pregnancies due to forced marriages and prostitution. (Neumayer and Plümper 2007).

An Accidental Outcome

While undertaking the regional scoping study program, the country partners, confronted by the challenges of engaging with policy makers, felt there must be a better way and more engaging manner to draw the attention of policy makers to recognize women’s commitment and contributions for reducing impacts of climate change. At the regional research meeting in Manila 2015, a decision was made to apply for a small grant from the Danish Family Planning Association to produce two documentaries out of the eight-country study. Due to fund size and geographical proximity, the Philippines and Malaysia were selected to pilot this initiative with Path Foundation as the key initiator and project leader. The visual documentary project was undertaken with the support of young Filipino filmmaker Inshallah Montero.

The success of this visual documentary initiative is beyond expectation. Both the Malaysian and Philippine documentaries were shown at various key conferences and policy meetings including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meetings at Paris (2015) and Marrakesh (2016).

In the documentaries the findings of the scoping studies were made visible and told in the voices of the women. Stories told by the women in Sarawak were shown to other local communities (including indigenous communities) to motivate climate-related action. The visual documentary helped widen the outreach of understanding gender discrimination, women’s contribution and climate impacts. It has also helped build solidarity and united the women leaders to articulate their concerns and stories in relation to natural environment and peaceful living.

The eight-country studies and the two visual documentaries have helped strengthen advocacy Fig. 2 “Why it is important to safe our forests.” A success by the communities at Baram that stopped the building of the Baram Dam. Center for Southeast Asian Studies Kyoto University 013 and building the context for the ASEAN Gender Mainstreaming Guidelines for Climate Adaptation and Mitigation (2016). This is a significant contribution towards policy advocacy.

We found that the process of filming had resulted in increasing the confidence of the participating indigenous women leaders as they told their stories and articulated their concerns. Secondly, the voices of the participating indigenous women leaders are heard in spaces that they would not be present due to limitations of access and mobility. Thirdly, the process significantly helped us celebrate the contribution of women at a grassroots level in building climate resilience of their respective communities. Even women themselves neglect to recognize the roles and achievements made to strengthen community resilience against climate impacts.

It is undeniable that the visual documentary helped breakdown many barriers and ensure that voices and stories are heard the way they are told. The recognition came in December 2016, as one of the top four best documentaries selected by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Kyoto University and the Japan Foundation Asia Center helped strengthen the efforts to promote more attention on how environmental governance impacts rural as well as indigenous communities. This visual documentary as well as the scoping studies helped highlight the need for greater understanding, solidarity, inclusion and peaceful co-existence with our natural environment.

Fig.3 Young Filipino Filmmaker Inshallah Montero (seated fourth from left).


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