The author looks at why a gendered approach to understand the impact of climate change is crucial to the formulation of appropriate mitigation and response strategies.
While climate change in general has negative implications, from a gender perspective, it entails greater risks for women than men. In India, as weather patterns change and become more unpredictable, with rising temperatures, droughts, heavy rainfalls, and powerful storms, it could exacerbate prevailing pressures as well as create new problems for women, especially those in rural areas.
In patriarchal societies, women’s abilities to adapt to the impacts of climate change are limited by social inequalities and their socioeconomic roles. These roles can influence property rights, access to information and resources, employment prospects, etc. Women are more likely to suffer from physical and psychological health problems, and also be the most affected during agrarian crises, natural disasters, etc. Further, rising temperatures and extreme weather events could adversely impact women’s lives and livelihoods, and also expose them to an increased risk of sexual abuse.
Food Insecurity, Water, and Health
Decrease in rainfall, increase in precipitation, and extended periods of drought—as already being experienced in different parts of India—bear profound implications for crop production, livestock, and fishery yields, leading to loss of traditional food sources and livelihood security. These developments will have differentiated, gendered trickle-down impacts.
As per the National Family Health Survey 2015-2016, 22.9 per cent of women (ages 15-49) in India suffer from chronic energy deficiency as compared to 20.2 per cent men (ages 15-49). Occurrence of anaemia among women is even higher, with 53.1 per cent women (ages 15-49) suffering from moderate or severe forms as compared to 22.7 per cent men (ages 15-59). Factors responsible for this include predominant cultural practices prioritising food provision to children and adult males. It is not inconceivable then that climate change could further intensify nutritional scarcity among women.
For example, the Indo-Gangetic plains currently account for 14-15 per cent of the world’s wheat production, feeding around 200 million people in the region. According to some climate change projections, crop yield in these plains might decrease by 51 per cent due to heat stress and drought by 2030. As evidence shows, in times of food scarcity, it is typically the women, especially those in rural areas, who would be the first to be deprived of food, and thereby, nutrition.
Moreover, changing consumption patterns induced by climate change could potentially widen existing gender-based health disparities. An increase in nutrient and micronutrient deficiency among women could cause poor attention spans, diminished working memories, impaired sensory functions, and in turn, reduced chances of survival in extreme weather conditions.
Climate change could also add to existing water shortage and access to clean drinking water such as in Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, etc. This too holds implications for women’s health in rural India, where women tend to be tasked with collecting water for the household. As groundwater ceases, women might have to travel longer distances, often in scorching heat, to fetch water, resulting in extreme fatigue. Coupled with occurrences of nutritional deficiencies, this scenario would aggravate existing health problems.
India is witness to a feminisation of agriculture, with more women being employed as either cultivators or labourers. According to an Oxfam report, this sector employs 80 per cent of all economically active women in India. Of those, 33 per cent work as agricultural labourers and 48 per cent are self-employed farmers. As of 2018, 85 per cent of women in rural areas were engaged in agricultural activities. Given how agriculture in India is an extremely seasonal and rain-fed activity, any change in climate directly impacts employment opportunities for these women. It also has a health impact, with the high rate of hysterectomies among migrant cane-cutters in Maharashtra’s Beed district as a case-in-point.
Migration and Workloads
In the past decade, India has witnessed unprecedented internal migration. In the Economic Survey of India 2017-18, inter-state migration (2011-2016) was estimated at 9 million annually. The impact of climate change on the agricultural sector has resulted in mass out-migration of men for employment, leaving women with a considerably increased workload to plug the gap. Women now juggle dual responsibilities of livelihood generation and performing traditional domestic roles, including tending to family members. Among other effects, this has resulted in significant numbers of female students missing school to accommodate increased domestic workloads.
If existing patterns are any indication, climate change-induced natural disasters and epidemics (which are predicted to become more frequent in the future) would make women and girls more susceptible to sexual exploitation and other forms of gender-based violence. In India’s case, data is scant on the causal link between climate change and violence against women and girls. However, in the aftermath of the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, aid agencies estimated that female survivors were at a greater risk of being sold as brides or into domestic and sex trade by traffickers preying on vulnerable families.
In India, gender-based disparities are already acute and multi-faceted. Climate change will exacerbate them further, leading to women being affected disproportionately, and severely. A gendered approach to understand the impact of climate change is thus crucial to the formulation of appropriate mitigation and response strategies.