Climate Change

Abandonment, poverty, sexual exploitation: Why Indian women pay a higher price for climate crisis

Women have limited ability to overcome climate shocks compared to their male counterparts: It is an uneven playing field. But a gradual change is on the horizon 

By Anshika Ravi
Published: Thursday 11 November 2021

The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (CoP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which draws to a close November 12 — briefly turned its focus on those who pay a bigger price when a disaster strikes.

Climate change — a ubiquitous planetary phenomenon that impacts every person in every country — impacts women and girls more. They face domestic violence, economic and sexual exploitation, abandonment, unemployment, among other things.

But they have limited ability to overcome climate shocks compared to their male counterparts. As is too often the case, it is an uneven playing field.

Down to Earth spoke to two women experts to understand how climate change plays out in the lives of Indian women, particularly in agriculture, where nearly 75 per cent of the full-time workers on Indian farms are women, according to OXFAM India.

Veena Poonacha is former director at Research Centre for Women’s Studies, New Delhi. Nitya Rao is professor of gender and development, School of International Development, University of East Anglia.

Edited excerpts:

Anshika Ravi: India has been impacted by a spate of climate change-induced disasters this year and last. How are women in India — in rural and urban areas impacted by the crisis?

Veena Poonacha: There is no doubt that there is a gendered dimension to the impact of climate crisis. I was commissioned by the Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal, Department of Women and Child Development, Government of Maharashtra, to evaluate self-help group programme when earthquake struck Latur in Maharashtra in 1993.

Women were the worst affected among the 20,000 killed and 30,000 injured and displaced. This is because on the fateful night, men were sleeping outside their homes [so they survived], but women were inside homes built with granite stones. 

Men (even those who had lost their families) were able to rebuild their lives more easily and start a new family with a second wife after the tragedy. Women became destitute and left prey to economic and sexual exploitation.   

Nitya Rao: Women care for family and put food on the table. But men migrate to other parts of the country for non-farm work. 

So when crops are destroyed, or remittances from migrant men are delayed, women end up eating less, borrowing from moneylenders, etc. They often end giving up their gold jewellery as collateral and engaging in low-paid, piece-rated, home-based work. This is all in addition to managing household farms and domestic work.

The suffering comes in layers. What about their health, employment, freedom?

VP: Another dimension is abandonment. Men desert their families in search of better economic options; women who are deserted are left to fend for themselves, their children and the elderly.

This is not true only in the case of environmental devastation; women pay a heavier price than men for environmental degradation as well.  Women’s household work includes ensuring water, fuel and fodder for their families.

I found, while studying the efficacy of self-help groups in uplifting women out of poverty through micro-finance and up-scaling of their vocational skills, that it is not possible to improve women’s status in their family without concurrently reducing their household drudgery. That can only be done if we succeed in regenerating the earth.

A connection can be made between rural-urban migration as well. I found during fieldwork in Mumbai slums that many living in abysmal conditions are displaced from their homelands because of environmental destruction. 

But vulnerable communities do not always migrate because of attraction to cities; they do so because of depleting farm production and threat of crop damage due to climate change.  

An analysis of the landslides and floods in Kodagu district of Karnataka indicated widespread devastation of coffee plantations and paddy field.  Agriculture was badly affected this year as well due to continuous rains and thunder storms.

Horticulture production has dropped and paddy fields destroyed. As farmers are displaced and are forced to migrate, the women in their families will bear the brunt of family violence. When families face financial stress, women are likely to bear the consequences. Daughters are withdrawn from school, married young or sold to sex work.

NR: Work for women does intensify when a calamity strikes, and with possibly reducing consumption, which has negative effects on women’s health.

Women, for example, organised themselves into self-help groups to support each other following frequent and severe cyclones in the Sunderbans region. But with little employment available, women end up in sex-work in the red light district of Kolkata.

Following climate-induced disasters, we also find a rise in girl child marriages, as women struggle to find food and keep their daughters safe.

There have been instances of women empowerment in agricultural production. How has that led to increased diversification in the use of farmland in India?

VP: I understood the importance of empowering women in agriculture its impact on the diversification of farm land-use a few years ago.  There is a definite difference in the way men look at agriculture and how women do. 

To male agriculture scientists, science is an avenue of career advancement. They are more likely to research on genetic modification of seeds or creating hybrid crop, but women scientists are more likely to be active in community outreach programmes or in discovering local solutions for agricultural problems.

Women in agriculture are usually involved in subsistence agriculture than cash crops. Therefore, empowering women in agriculture is more likely to encourage crop diversification. When land-use pattern shifts from food crops to cash crops, women are left unemployed. 

Here I am not talking of landless migrant workers, who have few options, but land-owning communities. Wherever the production of food crops is given up for cash crops, women are withdrawn from farm work and confined to domestic work. Bringing agriculture into a cash economy creates unequal access to resources in the household.

This is because men control money and women become dependent on them.  In a subsistence economy, resources are more easily distributed equitably.

NR: An interesting example at scale is the Andhra Pradesh community-based Natural Farming, which has as its entry point women’s self-help groups (SHG).

Men usually migrate, more so among Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe groups, and especially in drought-prone parts of Andhra. As managers of land, women seek a balance between food for consumption (subsistence) and food for sale to raise some income to meet other needs (purchase of oil, spices, transport, education, etc).

This programme has worked with women’s groups, enabling interaction between agriculture graduates and women (and some men) farmers to develop best practices for managing their land to yield both food and income.

They practice multi-layer farming with tree crops alongside grains and pulses and grow vegetable in small plots.

How do you see women’s participation in local community efforts to mitigate climate change impacts?

VP: There are several such examples from different parts of the country. In Maharashtra, MAVIM, an SHG, organises women to participate in panni panchayats to regenerate water bodies and build bunds for conserving water.

Women’s participation in such activities has two-fold advantages: It helps to reduce their household drudgery of carrying water to their houses and also ensures that the community views them as equal participants in the creation of water security.

NR: Women now constitute over 50 per cent of agricultural workers in rural India. They are also engaged in urban and peri-urban farming. During COVID-19 in particular, we found many urban middle class women taking to terrace or kitchen gardening. Several hostels for students, homes for the elderly and other community institutions took up farming as well.

This potentially has positive effects in terms of improving the vegetation cover in cities and contributing to a slower rise in temperatures, but also to mitigation by reducing energy consumption for transportation of perishables from the rural to the urban.

An integrated approach to managing crop choices, water, pests, etc can contribute to mitigation in rural areas too, where women work as a collective, discussing information and knowledge with each other, even though they work on their private lands.

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