DANG, Nepal (WOMENSENEWS)–Walking into the forest near her home, Sarada Chaudhary likes to look up. Above her head, branches weave together, allowing pockets of blue sky and glints of sun to peek through their leaves.
Look straight ahead, though, and the forest tells a different story. Trees stand awkwardly far apart in the dusty ground. Every few feet a stump pokes out from browned shrubbery.
"Compared to the past, a large part of the forest has been depleted," Chaudhary says. "Now, we have to walk for more than an hour to fetch firewood. The forest has moved far from us."
Chaudhary’s story is just one of those featured in a new documentary project being released today by Population Action International. "Weathering Change: Stories About Climate and Family From Women Around the World" shows how women in developing countries are shouldering the burdens of climate change. While the consequences of climate change–including floods, droughts, extreme weather and declining agricultural production–affect everyone, in many developing countries shifting temperature and precipitation patterns are making life especially hard for women and families.
In the Terai region where Chaudhary lives, an area of rolling plains near the Indian border, infrequent rains have dried out the soil. Meanwhile, a growing population in the area has meant more trees chopped down for use as firewood.
"If the same situation continues on, I think the place will be a desert by the next 50 years," she says.
Toll on Community
Already, in the last 15 years, unpredictable temperatures and a disruption of rainfall patterns have taken their toll on Chaudhary’s community. The major occupation of the indigenous Tharu people is agriculture and their livelihoods have been slowly drying up. Chaudhary estimates that this year, only one-quarter of the people in her village will have sufficient amounts of food.
"In the past, we used to have enough to eat and we could sell what was left," she says. "That is no longer possible. This year has been the worst. It is hard to survive."
The situation is all too common in villages across the region and, increasingly, for farmers in places across the world. In many of the poorest areas, shifting precipitation patterns are affecting agricultural production, with dire consequences for families and communities. Deforestation is also occurring at alarmingly high rates, especially in areas of the world that have high levels of population growth. The world’s growing population, which will surpass 7 billion people next month, is likely to magnify these challenges.
Because of the agricultural hardships, most men leave the Terai for India or the Gulf to look for work. The women are left "tangled with the household" and must farm, collect firewood and water, cook and take care of children on their own.
"Even in this 21st century, women here have to live in such a pathetic state," Chaudhary says. "Women should have knowledge about every field, be it education, health or climate change."
Chaudhary doesn’t just talk about empowering women, she also leads a women’s group, the Saljhundi Forest Committee, which focuses on family planning and forest conservation. Three times a month, the group holds training programs for about 60 women from the local area. The women plant trees and learn about improvised bio-gas stoves that use cow dung instead of firewood for fuel. Chaudhary advises women on the various methods of contraception available and the advantages of spacing pregnancies and choosing family size. She tells them about her own two children, and how she has struggled to provide for them during the recent hard times.
"With an increase in population, everything gets affected," she says. "If there are more kids, the mother has to suffer more than the father. The impact is felt on education, health and other sectors as well. So, one has to give birth to only as many children as one wants."
With most women, she doesn’t have to say much. More and more, they come up to her asking for contraceptives and telling her about their problems. While the older generation of women in her village typically had 10 to 12 children, among younger people, there are rarely more than four per household.
Chaudhary sees great potential in the women in her group to improve their own lives and also to help preserve the forest. She is committed to making sure it will still be there for her children, and possible grandchildren. Still, she sometimes can’t help but worry about the future.
"The environment is closely knit with the life of man," she says. "When we are experiencing so much change now, what is going to happen to the future generation?
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Danielle Zielinski is a communications specialist at Population Action International, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for women and families to have access to contraception in order to improve their health, reduce poverty and protect their environment.
For more information:
Mapping Population and Climate Change, Population Action International:
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