It is imperative for all women to have the absolute right to their bodies and easy access to health services for their sexual and reproductive well-being
A study by the United Nations mentions that 80 per centof the time, women and girls are often dislodged from their homes due to changes in climatic conditions which lead to human-made disasters, affecting them disproportionately.
During human-made or natural disasters like floods, tsunami, earthquakes, pandemic, etc., women and girls face far graver challenges to safety, security, access to health services, access to education, and even a safe space to stay. Needless to say, they are more vulnerable to exploitation, poor health, social taboos, and also unintended pregnancies.
While it is not surprising that extreme changes in the climate have a direct bearing on the health and wellbeing of women and girls, the linkages between sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and climate action have not been studied enough. It is high time we researched direct correlations between climate change, inaction to climate change, and its impact on women and girls. If a path for just transition is to be carved in India, then it is imperative that women and girls be involved in the decision-making process, be involved incommunity-level actions, and are empowered to be the flag bearers of just transitions.
Climate Justice: how far are we?Climate justice is a concept that addresses the fair division and equal distribution of gains and burdens of climate changesand the responsibilities that come with dealing with the changes. It is a fundamental aspect of SDG 13 under UN Agenda 2030.
Climate justice is a utopian concept given our historic baggage of social, cultural, economic, and gender inequities. Poverty, illiteracy, social backwardness, and gender inequality put a fairly large population of women in developing countrieslike ours at an intersection where they areconstantly battling basic survival issues like water shortage, food security, poor nutrition, lack of employment, access to education, and clean hygiene and access to basic healthcare facilities. And, climate change often multiplies these issues further deepening the vulnerability of women and girls. Most Indian women who belong to this milieu lack basic rights to sexual and reproductive health, a key to their health leading to unintended pregnancies, and larger families, thereby further jeopardising their socio-economic conditions.
There are enough and more examples globally to showcase how women and children are most severely impacted by climate change-induced extreme weather conditions. Unfortunately, India’s policies do not reflect any kind of gender sensitivity and this is primarily because of a lack of awareness on the whole issue of gender and social aspects of climate change. It is essential to study that different genders respond differently to climate-induced extreme weather changes, and this is exaggerated because of existing social inequalities and inequities.
There are some studies that have shown that disaster-related death rates are much higher for women than for men primarily because of gendered differences in their response and capacity to cope with such eventualities and limited access to information and early warnings make them even more vulnerable.Some recent examples supporting this, women alone accounted for close to 70-80 per cent deaths due to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and nearly 91 per cent of fatalities in the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh were again women. If when we look closer home, in India, for instance, in Odisha, most households along the coasts are run by women, as young men between the ages 20-45 have been forced to move to nearby cities for work as the aftermath of repeated cyclones. A 2021 study on gendered vulnerabilities linked with annual flooding in Bihar, showed how households with more daughters were most vulnerable and mapped how they suffered both physically and financially.
Climate Action Network South Asia’s recent report shows that climate-induced displacement and migration in India leads to at least 12-14 hours of added work for women that includes farmland work and household chores, which includes cooking food, securing water, taking care of young ones and elderly and for young girls dropping out of schools and helping in day to day work. These situations caused due to climate related disasters also leads to an increase in cases of sexual abuse among women and girls, early marriages, etc.
The recent IPCC report reiterated India’s need for climate justice, and gender and social equity, importantly for sustainable development. The report emphasised on the urgent need for building resilience and decreasing risks and vulnerability to the debilitating impact of climate change. The assessment report also flagged gender disparities, mental health, loss and damage of property and lives and the idea of compensation for the poor and vulnerable due to the climate related damage was also discussed.
How can climate justice be achieved in India?Increasingly, there is a requirement for fostering a more gender-transformative climate action by concentrating on identifying the existing linkages between climate change and SRHR all along the climate action processes- namely the Gender Action Plan under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or the Women and Gender Constituency, part of the UNFCCC.
We also need to start setting ourselves targets for a more gender- inclusive, multi-sectoral stakeholder involvement in putting together a policy to handle the aftermath of climate imbalances. There is also an overarching need for enhanced investments in furthering research in the studying the gaps, also integrating existing data sets on SRHR and climate to help us find more conclusive and far-reaching solutions. And, like always there is always more and more areas to invest in healthcare systems across geographies, more in the poorer regions to strengthen them help counter the exiting gaps and making them more accessible for the women.
It is imperative for all women to have the absolute right to their bodies and easy access to health services for their sexual and reproductive well-being. For them to be empowered, they need to be educated, to be able to take decisions, particularly with regard to reproductive rights. It is important to prioritise women’s health more in the context of SRHR and bring it to the centre of conversations. We believe that it is like the building blocks to the very foundation of gender equality and that India could add $770 billion to its GDP by 2025, simply by giving equal opportunities to women (estimates by McKinsey Global Institute Study) adds even more impetus.
Intersection of Climate Justice, SRHR and gender equity may sound like a far-fetched concepts but for India’s sustainable and upward growth it is important that we start taking the first steps now as this will automatically translate into better participation and contribution by women across all sectors of the society, and hence a direct contribution to India’s commitment on inclusive growth for women shaping them as a potent contributors to the Indian society and the economy. We must not lose any more time and take remedial steps without any further delay.
(The writer is a gender and climate justice specialist. The views expressed are personal.)