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Break the bias: Towards gender equality in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

Pema Gyamtsho

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Participants of the ‘Women in GIT training’ in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya, ICIMOD)

Each year on 8 March, organizations and individuals around the globe come together to honour the struggles of women for social, economic, and political equality and to celebrate their achievements and contributions to society. At ICIMOD, this is an important day in our annual calendar. IWD celebrations at ICIMOD are not just about acknowledging and applauding the immeasurable contributions of women but an occasion to rally support for women’s rights in the HKH, and to collectively reflect on the challenges to and opportunities for advancing gender equality in our region.

The 2022 IWD campaign theme #BreakTheBias and the UN Women theme “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” recognize the contributions of women and girls who are leading the charge on climate change adaptation, mitigation, and response to build a more sustainable future for all. Tremendous advancements have been made in science and technology, our economies are getting stronger, and living standards are improving. However, in our region, and the world at large, we have made limited progress in the area of gender equality. We are lagging behind when it comes breaking biases based on conventional notions of masculinities and femininities.  A Global Gender Gap Report 2021 produced by the World Economic Forum clearly shows that the gender gap is wide, particularly in political empowerment and economic participation. In fact, many studies report that gender and social inequalities have been aggravated with climate change and the ongoing pandemic.

While climate and environmental changes affect both women and men, gender inequalities ranging from division of labour to women’s lack of access, ownership and control over critical resources and opportunities predominantly affect women, leaving them more vulnerable. But this does not imply that women are passive. On the contrary, empirical studies from the wider South Asian region, as well as emerging work from the HKH, underscore the full extent to which rural women understand and respond to crises and move toward greater resilience. They develop coping strategies and mechanisms that protect their families, assets, and livelihoods. Equally, if not more importantly, they know what institutional support they need to strengthen their ability to face difficult conditions, just as they recognise the importance of changing attitudes and practices to deal with new circumstances. Women in the HKH play a vital role in maintaining the ecosystems upon which subsistence livelihoods depend and are repositories of important knowledge and skills. With the increasing outmigration of men, women’s roles have expanded, resulting in feminisation of activities within households, in the community at large, and in the public domain.

However, there are still serious lacunae in our understanding of the skills, capacities, knowledge, and range of competencies that they bring. This is due to persisting and deeply entrenched sociocultural ideologies that marginalize women’s contributions. It is time we break such biases that hold back our communities, societies, and nations from progressing. We must break such biases in our actions, attitudes, and ways of thinking.

At ICIMOD we are taking steps to break the bias at the institutional level and through our programmes. At the institutional level, for the first time we have a woman Deputy Director General, and the Senior Management Committee now has six women and four men.

At the programmatic level, we continue to address the STEM gender gap through our training on Women in Geoinformation Technology (GIT) under the SERVIR-HKH Initiative. These trainings in our regional member countries support and promote women researchers and professionals in the male-dominated GIT sector. Under our spring revival work, we have trained a cadre of women para-hydrogeologists to help in long-term data gathering, monitoring and community mobilization, while also ensuring a role for women in spring governance though participation in spring user committees.

Our Air Pollution Solutions Initiative has made a vital breakthrough in transforming gender and social perceptions in the male-dominated brick sector, alongside their work on promoting climate-friendly brick production. This has enabled collaborative gender and social action research interventions at brick factories for improving the working and living conditions of women and men workers. The Federation of Nepal Brick Industries (FNBI) has established a social unit and endorsed a social code of conduct  in 2021. In Pakistan, a Gender Resource Group comprising of mostly women professionals, researchers and community leaders has been formed under the Upper Indus Basin Initiative. It creates a space for women in an otherwise male-dominated water sector where women water professionals are not given their due and gender and social concerns remain largely unaddressed.

Since every action counts in combatting gender inequalities, together these separate examples pave many ways towards breaking the biases based on discriminatory gender norms and practices. And so, on this International Women’s Day 2022, let us pledge to break the biases that underpin inequalities and exclusions in the region and advance towards a gender and socially equal and inclusive world.

Happy International Women’s Day!


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