Episode 01: Nitya Rao on Bombay ducks, polygamy, disaster, and more
In this episode, we speak to Nitya Rao, a researcher, trainer, activist, and professor of gender and development at the University of East Anglia, UK. Professor Rao shares her rich experiences and deep insights from the 30 years that she has spent on the field in Asia and Africa: of translating 'climate change' into local vocabularies, increased labour burdens on women and girls during a crisis, and changing marital practices in the wake of disaster and distress. Tune in to learn more about climate change at the last-mile.
Episode One: Nitya Rao on Bombay ducks, polygamy, disaster, and more
Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Welcome to the Climate Brides podcast, where we try to untie the knots between climate change and child marriage. My name is Reetika Revathy Subramanian, and I am your host. Join me as I speak with survivors, frontline workers, activists, journalists, and researchers in and from South Asia, to unpack the everyday lives and resistances of young communities braving some of the biggest challenges of the 21st century.
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The Climate Brides podcast is supported by the University of Cambridge Public Engagement Starter Fund 2021. If you want to learn more about today’s topic, head over to our website, where we will have full transcripts of the episode, a specially curated reading list, climate models and infographics. Until then, follow the Climate Brides page on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to stay tuned, and stay updated.
Reetika Revathy Subramanian: A researcher, teacher, trainer and social activist, Nitya Rao is professor of Gender and Development at the University of East Anglia, UK. Through her pioneering work, Professor Rao has brought deep experience and understanding of farmer livelihoods, gender and climate change for research, policy and practice in Asia and Africa. She is a member of the Steering Group of the High Level Panel of Experts to the Committee on Global Food Security and the Strategic Advisory Group to the Global Challenges Research Fund of the UK Government. Today, Professor Rao joins us from Tamil Nadu in India to share her notes from the field on the everyday negotiations, and resistances of women and girls confronting the climate crisis at the last-mile.
Professor Rao, thank you very much for joining us today. We are really excited. To begin with, what are some of the ways in which indigenous communities understand and describe climate change? You know, what’s the vocabulary used on the ground, and how has it evolved with time?
Nitya Rao: I think climate change is something that is not very easily understood within local context, but people really look at the effects on their day-to-day lives. So, for instance, in coastal areas, you know, in Tamil Nadu, where I have been working frequency of storms following the 2004 Tsunami have increased. And this has made people actually rethink their strategies of how, what kind of technology they should use, how they should fish, where they should fish, and so on and so forth. Often in Tamil Nadu, for instance, men used to go to some, you know, other places and stay there to go for fishing, like deep sea and so on. And after the tsunami, basically, their behavioral pattern changed, because they said that we want to be close to our families, you know, families are too precious, and anything may happen to us, anytime. In the case of Maharashtra in Palghar, again, in the coastal communities, people talk not about climate change, but about, you know, decline in fish, for instance, or storms, or how it has actually affected their everyday lives and livelihoods. And I think from a gender lens, this is very important, because that's what then kind of affects, you know, how you behave or how you act. And it is not a generic kind of idea of climate change. And I feel that this is the disconnect when we're talking about communities, and we're talking about academic work, that, you know, academic work is talking about temperatures, precipitation, you know in sort of, and while these are very important, but it doesn't, if you just say okay, temperature is changing, or global warming, now, people can feel it, but until and unless you translate it into the ways in which it's affecting their lives. So, if because of temperature changes, let us see if a pest attack has increased and they've lost their crop, or they have to harvest earlier, so those are the ways in which people experience it. So, I would say that everybody is experiencing climate change. But I think we talk about it in very different ways.
Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Right, and my next question is globally, there is a serious lack of robust scientific data to measure the impacts of climate change on the lives of women and girls. Now, you’ve spent nearly 30 years on the field and have worked extensively across continents. Professor Rao, how do you understand the problem? What questions are you asking?
Nitya Rao: So, I think, for me the starting point, probably it's my background, working as a, you know, with organizing women before coming into academia, but for me the starting point has always been the women or the communities and building my frameworks upwards rather than starting with a framework and then building down. And I think this actually has a huge advantage because you can see the interlinkages in a woman's life. So, when you're talking, you know, there at the same time, you can observe, you can see that there are the children there, there is the kitchen there to manage, there are the fields to go, the interlinkages between the different kinds of work and the different parts of their lives. That basic understanding about the flexibility of work about the multiplicity of work and about the simultaneity actually, of women's work of managing the child talking to the child, of talking to the you know, of cooking of, you know, managing a toddler, so doing multiple things at the same time. And I think that actually contributed to my understanding that if you're really talking about adaptation, the starting points, even if you're talking about climate may not only be in production, which is often what the thing is that how do you boost production? You know, what are the varieties of crops, which will be drought prone, drought resistant, or whatever. But that is important at its level, in terms of intervention, but one intervention is not enough. I think specifically in the context for me, which is very important when doing gender analysis is sort of the divisions of labor and how you know, labor allocations, because we know that even in agriculture men and women are involved, but the tasks are gender-differentiated, because of changing precipitation or changing weather or whatever it is, or temperatures, you know, how these cropping cycles have shifted. In the case of crops or in the case of fisheries or you know, fish production, fish breeding, the types of fishes that are available. Where we are working in Palghar actually is famous for Bombay duck, and that's the kind of USP and now like Bombay duck production has gone down by almost 75%. So, all the women were involved in Bombay duck drying, really and that whole village used to have like the whole beach area and the side area lots of land allocated to Bombay duck drying and now it's just kind of vacant, because and these women don't get employment and then they are having to look for other work like factory work or other kinds of things. So, I think that that is, I think, to that extent, I think the conversation hasn't moved, that if you have to really adapt or enable adaptation to climate change or mitigate the risks, then you know, how do we ensure livelihood security? How do we understand livelihoods as gendered? And then address, you know, the specific needs of men and women. So even though India has, you know, 30 states, but only about four or five states actually are doing a bit of nuanced writing, in terms of their plans. So, I think definitely, there is a conversation, definitely there is greater awareness. But I think it still needs a sort of a long way to go to match up the different discourses at the community level and at the policymaking and academic level.
Reetika Revathy Subramanian: On that note, a large part of your pioneering work on gender and climate change has been based out of the African continent, particularly in East Africa. What are some of the ways in which indigenous communities in the continent there have been confronting the climate crisis?
Nitya Rao: In a previous project, I was part of a consortium called ASSAR that's Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions, and we were working across Africa, East Africa, West Africa, Southern Africa, as well as in India. And my own work, fieldwork was in East Africa. Kenya and Ethiopia is the area that I know best over the last couple of years. And this was more with pastoral groups, very dry part of the Rift Valley. And drought has become very, very frequent. So, you know, people were recollecting that, you know, like till 20 years ago, maybe once in 10 years, or once in 15 years would be drought now, every other year, and we saw it ourselves. And this has had some consequences, which are similar to South Asia, of course, with drought and lack of water. So, you know, that domestic water collection, and also a lot of water-related tasks are done by women. And, so, there was a real crisis in terms of water and having access to water, water collection. In many cases, it was too far, because these are very dry areas. No, and women really didn't have the time to walk long distances. But this then meant buying water. And water was quite expensive, which meant that already with drought, you know, you're losing your cattle, you're not earning much. And then on top of it, you're having to spend money on water. So, your food consumption, your other needs really get curbed to large extent. Very interesting in East Africa, and probably I haven't so closely observed it in India, but I don't know. I mean, in East Africa what was very interesting, as we were researching during the drought, because the men are the herders similar to farming, or fishing, that the men go out, they herd, but the women do sort of all the, you know, the cleaning, the feeding, the livestock across the board, but also very importantly, an income from the milk becomes really part of women's kitty, which they can then use for everyday expenses. And what happened with drought was that the men were moving very far away because there were no pastures. So, women didn't have access to this income. And they were getting into all sorts of legal to semi-legal activities some were trying to you know, just sell petty shops and so on. That was limited because cash was in general in low supply. They went into this this intoxicant called Mira, which is, you know, so men basically spending whatever money and women were selling this intoxicant. And then also, some went into, the younger women also went if they needed more money, if they had more younger children, there was no support from the husband, they went in for casual sex work to earn money, because that remains for women one form of work where it pays relatively better than doing you know, selling some buns or puffs or whatever it is. But of course, this then has health risks. So, cases of HIV were increasing, and so on. The other different thing that I saw in, in East Africa and possibly because also Kenya and Ethiopia are close to the Somali border, those areas are also prone to conflict, that these men really out of frustration, whether pushed by politicians, or just pushed through ethnic kind of rivalries, you know, trying to steal each other's cattle trying to somehow make do I think there's also an issue of masculinities and prices of masculinities that a lot of them go into, they get guns easily, and then they go into this kind of conflict. So even when I was there, actually, there were moments when it was pretty risky because there were cases of shooting, there were cases of people, young men dying, and so on. So, I think that was the other thing, that with, with lack of proper response to climate change, like droughts or the way it affects people's lives, I think the responses were, for young men, it was very much about violence and conflict, and for young women, it was very much about somehow, you know, one has to make a living, this could be through transactional sex quite often, it could be through taking on other risky ventures, selling intoxicants, you know, even though in the end, it kind of came back to hit them. So, there were a lot of separation, a lot of divorce, because marriages were completely falling apart.
Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Right, you just spoke about marriages and companionship. A key focus of the Climate Brides podcast has been on exploring the links between child marriages, forced marriages and the climate crisis in South Asia. In your experience, Professor Rao, how has marriage featured in conversations on coping or climate adaptation?
Nitya Rao: So, I think given the centrality of marriage as a social institution, I think invariably, this emerges, or this comes up in discussions with communities. I think for parents, a big concern, including for mothers, is that marriage, you know, is also understood, how is it understood. For the poor, I think, you know, material security, is as important as emotional satisfaction or emotional happiness. And a lot of girls are actually socialized or trained by their parents, or by their mothers from early period, to say that they will get married, but that, you know, marriage is really going to be for them, you know, maybe love and so on can come later. But marriage should really be about material security. What climate change does, or what climate crisis does, is really makes your material life much more insecure. And I think this is where the link comes, that if your purpose in this life transition is to look for security, and what is increasingly happening with life is insecurity, then, people go into strategies, to ty and strategize around how do we move from this very insecure materiality or material life to a much more secure material life. For parents, often there are multiple strategies to do this. One very important one is of course education. So, a lot of parents are actually now doing that, that educating their children with the hope that they can move into more sort of formal sector, so-called regular employment jobs, rather than remain with primary sectors. So, one of the big you know reasons for this whole lack of aspirations of youth in farming and so on is really linked to the fact that the returns are increasingly not necessarily less, but uncertain. So, education is one, education seems to have a reverse effect in terms of marriage, because where parents choose education as a strategy, including for their daughters, then it really becomes a priority that I educate my, if I'm able to, I educate my daughter and my son so that they can get jobs and they are financially secure. For those who can't, I think marriage is the other way of looking for security, that, okay, I need to find a good husband, for my daughter, so that she becomes secure.
Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Are there other factors that are important to families while discussing security and survival? For instance, how does the practice of polygamy work here?
Nitya Rao: A lot of the women, they really experience this drought, in terms of the shifts in, in relationships that are taking place. Also, I would like to say that from a gender lens, masculinities is very important, and we don't tend to focus on it. Often, I in Kenya, find extremely empathetic or sorry, in many ways, for young men. Older men are much better settled, they have their herds and so on. Normally, in pastoral groups, the younger men first are like apprentice, so they are labour, they take these cattle out to graze, and so on, but with, and then gradually over a period of time they build up their own stocks. They also need a couple of cattle in order to marry because it's a bride price society where you’d give a couple of heads of cattle, to the wives’ family. And here we find that the men, first of all because the herds are declining, not that many are getting jobs, they're not able to accumulate herds, they're not able to get married, they're not able to secure other kinds of jobs. In fact, in these pastoral communities, they are polygamous communities. And parents then preferred even for their younger daughters to actually become a junior wife of a much more older man, because in terms of again, as I said, the purpose of marriage, you know, people see it also as some kind of a calculation in terms of security. No, okay, love is one part of it, that you like the other person, you, you have a good marital relation. But the other side of marriage is actually some kind of security, sharing livelihoods. And parents’ calculation is that in this context of repeated droughts, the older men who are better settled with bigger herds, even if they lose some cattle will be able to provide their daughters much greater security. And of course, many of these young women were not really happy in terms of their marital relationship because there was no companionship, they were overburdened, but they had young children, and somehow, they devoted to young children. And they said that, you know, I'm not really pleased with my parents, but I can see that this was their logic.
Reetika Revathy Subramanian: This is very interesting. And I was thinking if there were any parallels that you could draw between what you saw back in East Africa and the practices back here in South Asia? Can you share a few examples?
Nitya Rao: In India, I think you don't have polygamy to that extent. So, then it is basically, you know, anybody, who has land rather than a landless labour household, might be more secure. Or you have any kind of petty job, in an urban area, or wherever it is. When I did research in Bangladesh, it was quite interesting, that they were really started looking for boys for their daughters, who were migrating to Gulf countries or overseas. And then instead of dowry, basically what these parents are doing is like arranging for visa, so paying basically the costs of migration for the potential son-in-law, you know, because that comes to also one and a half, two lakhs three lakhs is needed for doing all the paperwork, getting the job paying the brokers, and so on. So, I think dowry was being given in that way. You know, there's a kind of divide in strategies. And, you know, I don't see a very clear third way in which people are talking about security, particularly for girls, it's either through education and employment, or it is through marriage, and unfortunately, or somehow, these two seem to be working against each other. But I just wanted to add a point that this is in regular terms like now, because of the general insecurity, the general climate change, which is upon us, but when there is a disaster, I think, then you have much more of early marriages. I think after the 2004 Tsunami in Tamil Nadu itself, there were a lot of cases recorded cases where fathers had died, you know, mothers were getting their daughters, and also other people had died. So, there were bachelors, there were young girls, there were dead fathers. So, there was a lot of early marriage going on. With increasing climate variability and crisis, I think apart from early marriage, there is also quite a bit of a very fine line between migration and trafficking of young women. So, I did a study also on women domestic workers, and these are usually young women who, you know, dropped out of school between the ages of 15 to 18, or 19, and some of them, especially in Jharkhand, which is influenced, under the control of the church or areas where the church is dominant. Now, the church has been making sure that they record where these girls are going, and in terms of placement, and so on, but in a lot of the other areas where I worked, that it's just brokers. And this is, of course, has been written about also in Delhi, particularly, that a lot of agencies have increased, so-called domestic worker agencies, registered, unregistered over the last 20 years, these young girls come. And when I interviewed some of these, actually, they have very dreadful kind of experiences, they may be placed as domestic workers, but they are not paid, they are ill-treated. They are subjected to violence. And, you know, not fed properly. So, it's quite, even if they are in domestic service. And of course, the ones that who get trafficked, we don't know. The other interesting thing that is happening also is brides in terms of, you know, I don't know whether to use the word trafficked or to use some other word, but where actually these girls, particularly from Bengal and so on, and Bangladesh, they're coming into UP, Haryana, and they are getting, they are married. So actually, they do get a status as wives, but it's really a transactional thing, that in very desperate circumstances, the parents receive some money in exchange for the girl. And many of these women actually do say they're coming from a different ethnicity or different background, a different language group, they do eventually settle down, and live so I probably that's one step better than trafficking, though they don't really have a choice about this kind of marriage in a strange, in a strange place. So, we've heard also about Nepali young women, you know, being brought to India, particularly UP and married to men there.
Reetika Revathy Subramanian: Right, and over the past few years there is increased coverage and conversation on climate change in the media, in the parliament, on the streets, in classrooms. Going back to where we began this podcast, what are some of the lessons from the last mile for us to strengthen our own fight for a greener and more secure future?
Nitya Rao: So yes, definitely, I think climate change is accepted as a reality, it is much more visible for the public. You know, in media, as you rightly said, amongst academic researchers. As I said, the entry point can be anywhere. In my own thinking that, you know, addressing climate change, what I said right in the beginning, that if you see that climate change is a given, it is something central to all production systems. So, rather than necessarily looking at climate change in a box, we really need to look at what is happening to the everyday lives of women and men. These are areas that still in the academia, I think, we need to be need to focus and really pull it down from the macro kind of models and issues to much more everyday, nuanced, multi-dimensional issues.
Okay, on that note, thank you so much, Professor Rao. There has been so much to reflect on and think through today. Thank you once again.
Reetika Revathy Subramanian: The Climate Brides podcast is supported by the University of Cambridge Public Engagement Starter Fund 2021. If you want to learn more about today’s topic, head over to our website, where we will have full transcripts of the episode, a specially curated reading list, climate models and infographics. Until then, subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts. Follow the Climate Brides page on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to stay tuned, and stay updated.
Writer and Host: Reetika Revathy Subramanian
Music and Sound production: Siddharth Nagarajan
Illustration: Maitri Dore