Climate change leading to extreme weather, increased exposure to heat, poor air quality, reduced water quality, inadequate water and sanitation and decreased food security affect men and women differently due to underlying socioeconomic and cultural factors. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) notes that women face higher risks and experience climate change impacts due to social, economic, and political barriers that limit their coping capacity.
Climate change is a risk multiplier for gender-based inequality and threatens to widen gender‐based disparities:
Climate change can act as a threat multiplier that adds to the fragility of vulnerable groups, especially women: Climate change exacerbates water scarcity which makes WASH resources more inaccessible to women. This leads to an increased school dropout rate and limited education and employment opportunities for women and girls. In urban poor neighborhoods, limited and unreliable access to water supply during disasters at the household level necessitates high dependence on community WASH facilities leading to more significant risks of conflict and violence over limited resources. It further aggravates non-climate stressors such as population growth, poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tension, increasing the potential for conflicts.
WASH systems often break down during disasters and disproportionately affect women: In the aftermath of disasters, WASH infrastructure and services might be disrupted, or it may completely breakdown. Water supply often gets contaminated, and sanitation facilities (such as toilets and treatment plants) are destroyed, leading to outbreaks of WASH-related diseases, including cholera and other diarrheal diseases.
Intensification of the gendered division of labor during disasters and post-disaster: Climate change affects men and women unequally. In our society, women usually shoulder the care burden, often at the cost of their education and livelihood. Moreover, women’s bargaining position in the household weakens as their assets are depleted, and their income-earning options become inferior.
Disasters often collapse the social networks and ultimately break the existing fragile safety nets: Women have unequal access to safety nets, and mortality worsens for women from lower socioeconomic status during disasters (Neumayer and Plümper, 2007). For instance, when Cyclone Nargis hit the Ayeyarwady Delta in Myanmar in 2008, the death rate of those aged between 18 to 60 years for women was double that of men. Moreover, existing cultural and social norms further restrict women’s mobility.
Women face more significant health risks in climate disturbances: For instance, women, especially older and pregnant women, suffer a more significant burden of heat-related health impacts. Pregnancy also contributes to vulnerability. For example, prolonged exposure to high temperatures is associated with stillbirth, congenital disabilities, and preterm delivery (Basu et al., 2016).
While climate change makes the position of women vulnerable, women are also critical agents of change concerning both mitigation and adaptation strategies of climate change. Patricia Espinosa (the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC), in her address to the Global Peace and Prosperity Forum, underscored the crucial role of women in tackling climate change. She stressed the need to holistically address climate change and gender equality as it is “inextricably linked.” The Paris Agreement also mandates gender-responsive adaptation actions and capacity-building activities.
As part of the Paris agreement, India’s Intended nationally determined contribution (NDC) on climate change submitted to the UNFCCC in 2015-16 aims to address poverty and gender inequality. However, this commitment is not clearly articulated in its top priorities identified under mitigating and adaptive strategies of NDCs.
To ensure gender adaptive climate strategies with a focus on WASH in India, the following set of recommendations have been proposed:
Development of new gender-responsive policy instruments and adaptation of existing ones from a gender perspective focusing on WASH: The focus on women in national and state-level climate action plan needs to go beyond a normative recognition to incorporate their voices at all stages of the plan. Lack of recognition of women’s roles leads to ‘gender-blind’ policies that do not consider gender. Therefore, it is critical to place women’s voices at the center while designing gender-responsive climate strategies. Climate change can affect water and sanitation services. Therefore, issues around the acceptability of adaptation strategies will be crucial. For example, establishing water points or sanitation facilities that are culturally unacceptable (due to location, technology choice, or other reasons) should be prevented and addressed. According to the UN Climate Change and the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation Position Paper, ensuring the participation of the vulnerable community in the design and implementation of interventions is crucial in this regard.
Participatory planning: As per (UN World Population Prospects 2019), nearly half of the population on the earth constitute women (49.5% of the population), yet, their centrality in mitigating climate risk and participating in climate adaptive planning is nebulous. Despite women’s representation in local bodies in India and the availability of ‘democratic’ platforms in villages and urban areas, women’s participation in planning remains weak. Policymakers seldom hear women’s voices and opinions. The development planning must reflect women’s priorities and needs.
Provision of gender-sensitive emergency shelters: Emergency shelters during or after disasters are overcrowded and lack adequate safety, sanitation, and menstrual hygiene related provisions. Thus, gender-sensitive emergency shelters must be designed keeping in mind women’s mobility, physical security, and hygiene.
Gender budgeting and targeted subsidies to vulnerable groups to build back better and promote climate justice: Destruction of the WASH infrastructure due to cyclones, floods, and other disasters impacts the affordability of WASH services. While rebuilding infrastructure can be unaffordable for the marginalized, especially women. Lack of infrastructure can increase their vulnerabilities. Therefore, the government must issue targeted subsidies to rebuild better and promote climate justice. Additionally, it is critical to ensure gender-sensitive investments in adaptation, mitigation, and capacity-building programs. Local bodies, cities, and state governments should give financial resources to address gendered risks. Women need to be a part of the decision-making process to allocate resources for climate change both at the national and local levels aligning with identified priority areas of India’s NDC, including WASH.
Equitable stakeholder engagement: Women bear the burden of WASH and are disproportionately affected by the fallout stemming from climate change. Yet, women are underrepresented in the decision-making process on environmental governance. Gender adaptive strategies with greater decision-making power for women will allow women to mobilize community members during disasters effectively.
Monitoring of gender-specific targets on climate: Measures need to ensure that climate change does not further impoverished women. Data acquisition needs to be improved by establishing gender-sensitive benchmarks and indicators and developing tools to support increased attention to gender perspectives.
If climate-adaptive strategies are to be crafted, women’s participation in decision-making needs bolstering, and concerted efforts by governments need to be initiated to create opportunities for women to be leaders, decision-makers, and policy shapers. By focusing on women’s role in decision-making and improved access control of women over resources through training and capacity building, it is possible to prepare women to deal with climate shocks.
(About The Authors: Anju Dwivedi, Associate Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, Member NFSSM Alliance and Tripti Singh, Senior Research Associate, Centre for Policy Research)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.