In the Beed district of Maharashtra, several women have no wombs. According to a report published in The Hindu BusinessLine, these women, who work as cane cutters, voluntarily undergo hysterectomies, a surgical operation to remove the uterus.
In search of livelihood, these women migrate every year from the drought-prone Marathwada region to the sugarcane farms of western Maharashtra. Fearing that farm contractors won’t hire them if they ask for off days during their menstrual cycle, these women take the extreme step of removing their uterus.
While this may be a terrifying example of how climate change affects the lives of Indian women, this isn’t the only one.
It has already been proven that climate change doesn’t impact men and women equally. According to a United Nations report on women and climate change, “Women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than men — primarily as they constitute the majority of the world’s poor and are more dependent for their livelihood on natural resources that are threatened by climate change.”
In India, however, the gender disparities vis-a-vis climate change are more pronounced. Women not only face negative physical and psychological health issues due to climate change, but are also the worst affected during agrarian crisis and natural disasters.
While trends suggest that it is mostly women from poor and rural cross-sections who are the worst affected, even urban women from middle-class backgrounds aren’t immune to climate change, as migration patterns reveal.
How Climate change Impacts Women’s Livelihoods
In the last 10 years, India has seen unprecedented migration. According to the Economic Survey of India 2017, inter-state migration has been estimated at nine million annually between the years 2011 and 2016. Most male agricultural labourers who lived in rural areas moved to cities to find work, leaving behind women to do farming, which means that during any agrarian crisis, women will be most affected.
“Eighty per cent of farmers are now women. This, in theory, is what we call feminisation of agriculture,” said Nishtha Satyam, deputy representative, UN Women Office for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka. “Whenever the agrarian crisis escalates, we realise that those who are disproportionately impacted by it are women. That puts women at the centre of climate change,” she added.
Satyam pointed out that trafficking of women and girls, their forced migration and lack of equal opportunities at work are all factors which can be closely linked to climate change.
UN Women has been working on various ways to empower women to face climate change. “One of the biggest policy gaps that we have experienced is that government does not recognise the identity of a woman as a farmer,” she said.
One way to prepare women for environmental changes is to teach them climate resilient agriculture. “We teach them crop rotation, help them identify mitigation mechanisms related to climate change, and diversify irrigation methods. We also plan to work on training women so that they become both active consumers and producers of the decentralised renewable methods of energy, which will not only provide them with a livelihood but also help in mitigating climate change,” Satyam said.
Women in India are often undercut by discriminatory societal norms which implicitly prescribe that landowners must always be men. Another problem is that since the government does not identify women as farmers, the benefits that various states and the central government offer to agricultural landowners and farmers do not trickle down to them.
“Women in rural areas do not own lands. They have no access to farming technologies nor any knowledge of how to implement them. Despite being 80 per cent of the workforce, neither they nor their family members recognise them as farmers.” said Naseem Shaikh, associate program director of Swayam Shiksha Prayog, a Pune-based NGO which trains women farmers and helps them access pure water and proper sanitation.
Shaikh said Swayam Shiksha Prayog advocates in favour of making women farmers landowners. When women become decision-makers and stakeholders in the agriculture sector, they will definitely be better equipped and empowered to face climate change, she pointed out.
Impact on Women’s Health
Malnutrition and food insecurity caused by climate change affects the health of Indian women severely. “Anaemia is sometimes caused by malnutrition,” pointed out Cecilia Sorensen, an Emergency Medicine Physician at the University of Colorado and currently a Living Closer Foundation Fellow in Climate and Health Policy.
“If there is food insecurity because of drought or any other kind of environmental change, it will be reflected in anaemia. It is also generally found that women who occupy lower socio-economic status tend to have higher rates of anaemia,” added Sorensen.
Sorensen is one of the authors of the review article published in the American Geophysical Union (AGU) journal, titled ‘Climate Change and Women’s Health: Impacts and Opportunities in India’. The article states that women are inherently sensitive to food insecurity which results in nutrient, especially micronutrient deficiency which further causes cognitive impairment, cause poor attention span, diminish working memory and also impair sensory perceptions.
The article also points out that, “as a result of alterations in temperature and precipitation, the geographic range and abundance of disease vectors is changing, exposing more people to tick-borne, and mosquito-borne illnesses.”
“Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to such illnesses,” noted Sorensen. “During pregnancy, women undergo several biological changes and their immune systems are compromised. As a result, a higher intensity of malaria-causing parasites is found in their bloodstreams. Apart from that, pregnant women also tend to breathe faster and more often. Mosquitoes use exhaled respiratory air to locate humans. So, pregnant women become an easy target,” she added. Not only that, it is said that rising seasonal temperatures and extreme heat events like droughts are likely to adversely impact the reproductive outcomes too, causing gestational hypertension and preeclampsia.
Water scarcity resulting due to climate change also impacts women’s health. In India, it is generally a woman’s job to get water for the household. As groundwater disappears from several areas of India, women have to travel longer distances, often in the scorching heat, to access water and it results in extreme fatigue in them. In the absence of clean water sources, often, the water that they drink or use is contaminated or has toxins. While exposure to such water sources increases the scope of waterborne infections, drinking it has its own health hazards.