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What it's like being a young woman on the climate change frontline

I am Sikha, a climate activist from Nepal. I live in Kathmandu.

I am Sikha, a climate activist from Nepal. I live in Kathmandu. 

I don't consider myself an exceptional achiever. I rarely contemplate the larger picture or the impact I can have on it. 

But lately, a dilemma has seized my attention: the conflict between economic development and environmental protection.

While in places like Nepal, significant political attention is rightly focused on job creation and GDP growth, in many cases environmental preservation remains a neglected aspect of the political agenda.

Environmental crises transcend national borders and affect people worldwide, regardless of their backgrounds. And it’s often the most vulnerable and innocent individuals who suffer the most, whether living in sophisticated places like Kathmandu or remote areas of Rasuwa.

This insight motivated me to establish an environmentally-focused group named 'Prakritilaya,' dedicated to advocating for climate change awareness, ensuring that people are well-informed about its far-reaching consequences.

I am currently a part of the organizing team for a campaign called 'Save Our Wetlands,' which is part of the global campaign accelerator called SHIFT. Our mission is to raise awareness about the significance of wetlands in the fight against climate change, addressing problems such as artificial beautification, wetlands degradation, and species endangerment. 

I am also one of Plan International Nepal’s ten ‘Youth Activists’ for 2023.

Together with the other Nepalese Plan International Youth Activists, as well as those from Plan International Australia and Plan International Indonesia, I recently participated in a research project called For Our Futures. 

The project sought to investigate how climate change and climate disasters are impacting young people’s education in the Asia Pacific, with a specific focus on Australia, Nepal and Indonesia. 

In Nepal, it is estimated that students are losing up to three months of education every year due to climate disasters. During the 2017 floods, almost 2,000 schools were damaged or destroyed, and around 238,900 children missed school. In the worst-hit areas, 90% of schools were destroyed. Similarly, the extreme heat in summer led to the closure of schools in the Terai region.

For the Plan International For Our Futures report, we surveyed approximately 500 young people about the impact that climate change and climate disasters are having on their education. 

Our report shows that in Nepal, girls are being hit first and worst by the climate crisis, and are feeling the impacts of multiple, compounding disasters and extreme weather events due to the climate crisis. Students from Nepal were the most impacted by floods, landslides and excessive heat. In survey responses, the top three impacts of climate change on education chosen by respondents in Nepal were:

▪ Disruptions to my travel to and from school; 

▪ School was closed, damaged or destroyed; 

▪ Textbooks or learning materials were damaged or destroyed.

Girls are often more likely to be pulled out of school when times are tough and resources are scarce, due to gendered norms in Nepal that mean girls’ education is valued less than boys'.

Climate change also increases the risk of gender-based violence. Our For Our Futures survey showed that the impact of the climate crisis on agriculture was impacting girls’ ability to attend school. Many of the young people who took photos to submit to our survey focused on the impact of the climate crisis on their families' crops – with photos of crops damaged by floods, or the way drought and lack of rain is affecting families’ crops.

This aligns with other studies – for example, in a survey of over 4000 students in Nepal, more than one in ten students said that the climate crisis affected their family’s ability to pay to go to school. Increased poverty and food insecurity impacts maternal health and climate disasters cause significant disruptions in access to health services, including contraception.

Reflecting on my own experience as a school student, I recall the impact of floods around my school, which forced prolonged closures of the school. During those disruptions, I received no education about the reasons behind such events, and my school didn't provide information on climate change. Had I been introduced to climate change earlier, I would have had a better understanding of it at an earlier stage.

Last year, I had the opportunity to journey to the mountainous region of Rasuwa, where I witnessed the visible effects of climate change. Langtang, which is typically snow-covered, was totally devoid of snow, and the local villagers shared their concerns about the delayed snowfall. As a resident of Kathmandu, I have experienced the events of urban flooding. Changing weather patterns associated with climate change have made the situation worse.

I believe that if I can demand justice and assert my rights in my daily life with my family and friends, I can certainly try to advocate for justice on a grander scale.  

It's high time that we, as individuals, focus on the climate-vulnerable and understand the reasons behind their vulnerability. The impacts of climate change on future generations, wildlife, and the environment are all consequences of human actions, and we as humans must take responsibility now.