Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

From advocacy to awareness: Women-led communities are finding their voice in the climate space

Even as governments sign accords, and startups find tech solutions to help with the impacts of the climate crisis, women-led communities are bringing their might and perspective to find solutions on the ground to deal with the climate crisis

Published: Jul 1, 2024 12:44:36 PM IST
Updated: Jul 2, 2024 03:02:33 PM IST

(From left): Bhavreen Kandhari, founder of WarriorMoms, with other members Vandana Narang and Chinky Singh, while they collect data of ambient temperature and AQI levels at a park in Defence Colony in New Delhi
Image: Amit Verma
(From left): Bhavreen Kandhari, founder of WarriorMoms, with other members Vandana Narang and Chinky Singh, while they collect data of ambient temperature and AQI levels at a park in Defence Colony in New Delhi Image: Amit Verma

Delhi-based environmentalist Bhavreen Kandhari has been fighting for clean air since the early 2000s. But it was under the clear, blue skies of the pandemic that she decided it was time to make a shift—from advocacy to action mode. Getting together a network of other like-minded women who were concerned about the health of their children, she co-founded WarriorMoms to provide resources and support, and help people push the authorities into taking action.

“We had always been trying to push with the government to work on emissions, because you get clean air only by curbing the sources of emissions” she says. The lockdown was, she adds, like the world’s largest experiment coming true. “So, this warrior movement was a desperate move to come into an actionable mode. There was enough said in the name of advocacy, now we had to be demanding, and also putting all our conversations, our work, our campaigns into action mode,” says the mother of twin daughters, who, despite working for clean air for years, knows she has not managed to save her daughters from lung damage.

WarriorMoms creates awareness on sources of air pollution and climate change. The members educate and empower citizens to take action by creating a database of rules, regulations, and authorities to contact. They engage with officials to enforce regulations. The community has also been working towards protecting trees, pushing solid waste management byelaws, and reducing emissions and pollution. The community has grown to 13 states with members in 53 cities—all women working towards the common goal of climate action.

Even as governments sign accords, and startups find tech solutions to help with the impacts of the climate crisis, communities like WarriorMoms—women-led and working with women—are bringing their might and perspective to find solutions on the ground to deal with the climate crisis and drive action.

The Changemakers

All research and reports suggest that women and children are more vulnerable and are disproportionately larger victims of climate change. For instance, in rural areas, with water depletion, women have to walk longer distances to procure it. When there is less food and lower agriculture output, it affects women nutritionally since they are the last to eat in families, and if men start drinking due to crop failure, women could be victims of domestic violence.

But because of the same reasons, women can also be active change agents towards sustainability, says Uthara Narayanan, along with Dave Jongeneelen and Suresh K Krishna started Buzz Women in 2012, with the aim of driving leadership education and financial independence for women.

About five years later, in one of the villages in Karnataka where they worked, Narayanan recalls a woman saying they were making money but it wasn’t enough. When they tried to figure why, they realised there was not enough water and so agricultural yields were lower. A solution came up from within the community on how to clean up the local kalyani (stepped tank) to ensure a sustained water source, also giving birth to the Buzz Green vertical at Buzz Women. Solutions since then have included using less plastic, increasing local consumption, and production of essential goods like traditional toothpaste, which drive sustainability and also increase women’s income.

(From left): Bhavreen Kandhari, founder of WarriorMoms, with other members Vandana Narang and Chinky Singh, while they collect data of ambient temperature and AQI levels at a park in Defence Colony in New Delhi
Image: Amit Verma
Uthara Narayanan of Buzz Women trains women about cash, confidence and climate

“What women need is simplified language away from jargons and  being included in decision-making spaces so that they can come up with their own solutions towards climate justice,” says Narayanan. Buzz Women is present in 11 districts of Karnataka and has so far enabled 600,000 rural women with their trainings around cash, community, care, confidence and climate. Among the moves towards sustainability, “with around 336 kitchen gardens that have been started in 2023 alone, there has been a collective saving of ₹8 million annually”, she adds.

Divya Hegde, founder of Baeru, a startup that works with fishing communities, “one of the most vulnerable communities when it comes to climate change”, due to warming seas and decreasing catch volumes, agrees about taking the ground-up approach. “When I talk about plastics in the ocean to women and fishing communities, it’s like preaching to the choir. They already know. And fisherwomen are some of the fiercest women around, they don’t wallow. The key is to leverage them, those who understand the issue best, and solve it together,” says Hegde, who is based in Karnataka.

The startup incentivises fishermen to bring back plastic from the ocean during their fishing trips. This plastic is then processed, segregated and sold by the women, boosting their income. “So, when we talk about the circular economy, it’s not just about the circularity in product design. It involves reusing and repurposing existing assets, boosting local economies, and benefiting tourism through cleaner areas and local populations earning,” she says.

Women want to roll up their sleeves and get things done, says Michelle Li, founder of Clever Carbon, which teaches people about carbon footprint in a hip, fun and relatable way “because what gets measured, gets changed”. Li, who is based in New York, had attended various networking events but found them male-dominated. “I was excited to talk about what we can do to reduce our impact and take better care of the planet. But I quickly realised that people who were networking were not there for those reasons. There were a lot of investors looking for their next unicorn. There were a lot of startups looking for funding. And I wanted to be able to find people who had a similar interest as me in wanting to reduce our impact.” In February 2022, she founded Women and Climate, a non-profit that aims to accelerate climate action by inspiring more women to get started on their climate journey and empower women already working in climate through events and get-togethers.

(From left): Bhavreen Kandhari, founder of WarriorMoms, with other members Vandana Narang and Chinky Singh, while they collect data of ambient temperature and AQI levels at a park in Defence Colony in New Delhi
Image: Amit Verma
Divya Hegde’s Baeru works with fishing communities Image: Bajirao Pawar for Forbes India

Visibility on Slack and LinkedIn has meant that Women and Climate has now become a global community with chapters in various cities around the world, including in Europe, North America, as well as Doha, Dubai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, where volunteers and ‘city leads’ put together events.

In Mumbai, Shalini Bharat’s Nadhi-SheForClimate is another community that hopes to provide a space for women to get started or find support on their climate journeys. The community currently has four chapters—in Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Chennai. The aim, Bharat says, is to not just create a space for Nadhi members to network, but also add value with workshops, lectures, mentorship and jobs.

The for-profit’s lectures and workshops have been on topics ranging from the circular economy and ESG to dealing with the challenges of entrepreneurs—from pitching for funds to validating and taking a product to market. “The mission is to empower 100,000 women to become climate change leaders by 2030. And the focus is India and the global South.”

Also read: Climate change is wreaking havoc in India. It needs clarity and action now


A different perspective

While there are plenty of men and dads on the periphery of WarriorMoms, mothers will even jump into the fire to save their young ones, says Kandhari. It’s also why all their conversations start with tapping into people as parents. “Every leader or politician, officer or authority is a parent and no parent in the world can ever say I don’t want the best for my children,” says Kandhari, who was also part of a delegation of mothers from the Our Kids’ Climate and Parents For Future Global networks at the COP26, COP27 and COP28 climate summits.

“Women are detail-oriented and they also think more about the future, because of the children,” says Narayanan of Buzz Women. It’s also why thinking about health comes naturally to them, as does having a collective mindset to learn and to share. Their influence on the next generation too is high since it is mostly women who are at home nurturing the kids.

Often climate solutions are based on technology like renewables, electric vehicles and carbon removal, with gender and social solutions seen as a softer aspect. “But if you ignore women from the decision-making table, you’re actually ignoring a voice that could add value to that or that expertise or facet which probably got missed by the others,” says Bharat of Nadhi. 

(From left): Bhavreen Kandhari, founder of WarriorMoms, with other members Vandana Narang and Chinky Singh, while they collect data of ambient temperature and AQI levels at a park in Defence Colony in New Delhi
Image: Amit Verma
Shalini Bharat’s Nadhi-SheForClimate supports women in their climate journeys Image: Bajirao Pawar for Forbes India
 

A platform and a voice

The fact that Kandhari’s WarriorMoms has reached even villages is borne out by a case she outlines—of a woman in Odisha who reached out to them on social media seeking help and advice about a coal train that passed through her village. “She connected with us two years ago, and is now a core member,” says Kandhari. Coal from the train is offloaded in the village, sprayed with chemicals and then loaded back. “But in this process a lot of fly ash gets into the village, causing problems, especially among the children and the older people,” Kandhari says. WarriorMoms helped her draft campaigns and the woman recently filed a case with the National Green Tribunal since no action was being taken.

Women and Climate’s Li is trying to help women find their voice at global climate summits—where there are significantly fewer women speakers—by building a speaker’s database on their website. “Our events only have women speakers, and I think we’ve probably put over a 100 to 150 women on stage,” says Li, adding, “We have produced events and programmes featuring women speakers at COP27 and NYC Climate Week, among others.”

Speaking was just one of the opportunities for Hegde of Baeru, who was part of the first cohort at Women Climate Collective, which aims to empower women-inclusive climate action in India. Launched in 2023, the collective, supported by, among others, the L’Oreal Foundation and Purpose Climate Lab, selects women with promising climate action work and provides them with a chance to develop their leadership skills and access greater visibility in India. “I’ve been connected to other women in this space who are going through similar challenges so you can exchange notes and find collaboration opportunities which would otherwise be hard to come by,” she says.

In Mumbai, Samantha Misquitta, a senior strategy consultant at Deloitte India, and Amanda Dolphy, business consultant at Ernst & Young, both city leads for the Women and Climate Mumbai chapter, take the learnings from the events back to their jobs and strategy, even as professionals from various walks of life, including finance, the arts and cinema, come to the events to broaden their understanding and scope of impact.

It is why Bharat of Nadhi is clear about starting ground-up and starting early. Unlike the Women in Tech or Women Who Code movements, which started when they realised there was too little representation of women in technology, “we have to start right from the beginning so that women in climate is not an afterthought. We don’t want to get to that stage and say where are the women?” 

(This story appears in the 28 June, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)