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Gendered Lens in the Climate Crisis

(Written for the Times of India. Can be read here.)

In the Global Climate Risk Index released in 2018, India ranked the fifth-most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change out of 181 countries. With increase in carbon emissions, it is reported that parts of Mumbai, Surat, Chennai, and Kolkata will either be underwater or ravaged by recurring floods by 2050 due to rise in sea levels. When any change in status quo happens, as a representation activist I tend to ask myself whether men and women would be impacted the same. The answer is hardly ever yes. Let me explain this with an example – Mumbai.

Mumbai is a commercial hub which houses a massive population. According to an analysis by Mckinsey, around 3 million people living within one kilometre of the coastline are under threat from flooding, storm surges, and sea level rise. It ranks as the fifth most vulnerable city in the world for overall cost of damage – facing $6.4 bn losses annually by 2050, even with upgraded protection.

It goes without saying that climate change anywhere drastically affects the social development of communities. However, the burden is borne differently by different people based on age, income-groups, occupations, and gender. Extreme weather events such as droughts and floods have a greater impact on the poor and vulnerable, especially women and girls. According to a report published by WEDO-IUCN, women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men during a disaster. Since 1900, natural disasters have claimed more than 32 million lives globally – with higher female casualties. In both rural and urban settings, gender inequities intersect with climate vulnerabilities. Women are often responsible for gathering and producing food, collecting water, fuel for heating and cooking, and care-giving. With climate change, these tasks become more difficult.

In the case of Mumbai, fishery is an essential source of livelihood for close to 5,00,000 people of the Koli community which would be hardest hit. Here, men are responsible for work at the sea and technical jobs such as building the boats or ferry/ jet services while women are involved in sorting, drying, cleaning, and selling of the fish. When the catch is low, women have to travel to distant places to procure fish at wholesale rates so as to be able to sell more for a marginal profit. Stories abound about women from the Arnala fishing village leaving their homes as early as 2am, traveling to fishing docks in south Mumbai (85-95km away) to buy fish at wholesale rates and then returning to sell at the Arnala market.

Climate change is a double whammy for female employment: it will overburden a section of working women and lead to a drop in female labour force participation overall. Over the past few years, we have seen how public infrastructure crumbles with a short spell of sustained rains. With climate change, such instances are set to increase impacting infrastructure and transportation. It could cascade into more women dropping out of the workforce. A report by Asian Development Bank in 2013 highlights this trend, “women may turn down employment opportunities further distances away from home if the transport system does not enable them to travel to and from work in time to meet their domestic family care obligations”.

Mumbai has also been facing increasing problems with waterlogging over the last decade because of rampant construction activities that obstruct the natural drainage processes. It creates perfect breeding grounds for mosquito-borne diseases with densely populated areas like Dharavi, Dadar, Parel being more prone. The city has seen a spike in the number of cases every year, with four times increase in Dengue in November 2019 compared to 2018. Since affordable healthcare is a luxury, women face the disease burden more as expenditure on their health isn’t often prioritized.

Studies have also shown that air pollution has grave impact on women’s menstrual and reproductive health. It causes irregular menstrual cycles, infertility, polycystic ovary syndrome, and adverse pregnancy outcomes like stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weight. It also has links to depression and increases risks of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

In the traditional family roles women perform, she may become overburdened due to the climate’s effects on those who rely on her. If anyone in the household is unwell, additional duties fall on her – taking time and energy away from her career and/or much needed self-care.

Most of the above happens because policies for mitigation of the climate crises are often gender-blind and do not consider the disproportionate impact that women have to bear. There is an urgent need to include women in such policy-making. Scholars have shown that the efficiency of environmental management increases with the involvement of women. Now the fight for representation of women in decision-making tables has become more than about sharing power – a matter of survival.


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