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Women empowerment for securing sustainable alternative livelihoods

By: Farhan Anwar

Changing trends in politics and governance, technology use, economics, and availability of natural resources pose serious obstacles to the future of many livelihoods. These changes impact the availability of assets and opportunities to transform those assets into a living. Chambers and Conway describe a livelihood as something that comprises the capabilities, assets and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stress and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base.

The concept of alternative livelihoods, when taken within the context of coastal communities, applies when coastal natural resources come under increasing pressure and current use patterns are no longer sustainable. Alternative livelihoods therefore can be considered to exist outside the traditional or established activities for coastal communities.

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Climate change, among other things, is affecting the resources and has added many social and environmental burdens on already stressed communities. With increased frequency of extreme weather events, livelihoods of coastal communities are now at a much greater risk. The Karachi coast is dotted with coastal communities that are at high levels of vulnerability when it comes to both their exposure and capacity constraints in meeting with the consequences of coastal hazards. Their livelihoods, based almost solely on fishing-related activities, are already paying diminishing dividends and exposure to a sudden and extreme weather event is likely to make things much worse.

When it comes to assessing livelihood vulnerabilities, the poor are the most dependent on natural resources and, therefore, the most severely affected when their access to natural resources is limited or denied. It is not just their economic activities that are tied to this access; their capacity to engage in economic activities can be affected by resource degradation. Disaster affected populations have identified livelihoods as their greatest recovery priority. New, more comprehensive assessment tools have been developed to better understand livelihood needs and guide disaster livelihoods work.

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In this case, the vulnerability data on communities at risk is missing. There is an urgent need to collate secondary data on the environment, socio-economics and household studies, while at the same time initiating a drive to collect primary data. Whenever mechanisms have to be developed for facilitating sustainable alternative livelihoods, stakeholders need to be adequately identified and roles sanctioned, while at the same time identifying external influences that affect communities.

When it comes to identifying stakeholders, a neglected area for consideration is women empowerment. It is now established that women play a significant role in the socio-economic well-being of their families and communities. In this case, however, women face numerous challenges because of their restricted mobility due to patriarchal and feudal social set ups. There is a need to enhance the productive capacity of local women within our coastal communities, in skills such as traditional craft making, baking, better stewardship and preservation of natural resources, without challenging their cultural values.

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This can be done by providing them technical and vocational training and, at the same time, instituting a system in which their products are marketed. Such measures would not only create a buffer to sustain the economic shock of a disaster but also supplement family incomes.

Women in fishing communities are already mobilised in assisting in the activities related with the fishing trade. However, the fishing sector as a whole is faced with an ongoing crisis and the contribution of the womenfolk does not deliver the dividends that are worth the time and effort put in, while compromising on health. Such diversification can potentially improve family incomes, lead to better health and education for the entire family and serve as a sustainable financial coping mechanism when faced with a natural calamity.

Express Tribune