Goddess in the fields

Women constitute almost 50 per cent of the human species. Yet, they are peculiarly vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. Why is it so?

February 18, 2016 04:21 pm | Updated 04:24 pm IST - MADURAI:



As per the latest Census (2011), roughly 48% of India’s population is female – about 580 million of them. Given that women live longer, this shows a tilt, suggesting some systematic way of eliminating females from the population. The well-known practises of female foeticide and female infanticide remove millions of baby girls every year. So vulnerability begins at birth.

The vulnerability continues as the baby girls grows. She is often less educated: with attendance in school falling steeply as she enters puberty, especially in rural India. Thus, on average, she has already been placed on the “slower” track.

This vulnerability is compounded when she (and if she) enters the workforce. An overwhelming portion of urban women don’t work as they enter their marriage and child bearing years. A larger number of rural women continue to work, often as marginal workers. There are strong cultural and social factors at play. The latest census data is damning. The urban, educated woman works (outside the home) the least, while the Illiterate rural woman works the most. Given the costs of educating and marrying girls, cold economics perhaps explains the falling sex ratio amongst children in the past 10 years.

Moreover, for women who work, data from the World Bank suggest wages for women performing casual labour are 20% lower than those received for men and 20% lower for the same task.

This set of vulnerabilities is worsened by the changing climate. Consider this: almost three quarters of the working women in India work in agriculture. Falling agricultural yields and the mechanization of agriculture are twin threats to this large group. Also, this group has few alternates for work: either in the form of alternate rural employment (textiles is a notable exception) or the ability to migrate. What this large group will do in the coming decades is an important question of our times.

The second set of problems caused by climate change for women has to do with some of the roles that women perform: child and household care. As we saw in an earlier article, both the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases and the incidence of health problems related to floods (diarrhoea etc.) are set to rise. With children being a vulnerable group, child carers, who are overwhelmingly women, are set for bad time. They will have less time to work or to relax thus reducing their well-being. The collection of water is another burden on women, especially little girls, that is going to rise. As the incidence of drought increases, more and more girls will have to walk further each day to collect water – stealing time that could have been put to school or leisure.

One contributor to global warming on a local scale is the black smoke that emanates from cook stoves fuelled by solid fuels like wood or dung. The black smoke is said to cause warming in a local scale as well as cause tremendous health problems as the tiny particles in the smoke enter our lungs and wreak havoc. Across India, millions of households use such stoves contributing to over a million deaths a year. The bulk of this burden is borne by women who cook.

The last set of problems has to do with violence against women: dowry deaths rise when drought occurs. A study by Sekhri and Storeygard (2013) looks at data from 500+ districts in India over the past decade. Whenever rains fall by a standard deviation, or 240mm in a season, dowry deaths in that district rise by eight per cent. Studies show that domestic violence reports in the US increase by seven per cent for every degree C rise in temperature. With violence against women already making regular headlines, this is a risk we cannot afford to let rise. Another vulnerability has to do with nutrition: several studies show that as drought increases and the available nutrition available for a family falls, women often forego their share in such scenarios so that their families benefit, worsening their health in the process.

So what can we do?

Let us understand, for most, power stems from money in our society today. To improve the position of women, this translates to ensuring they work and removing the social, psychological and economic barriers that prevent them from doing so. Given that the most harshly affected category of women are rural women, we need to explore avenues of employment for them. This could be through encouraging textile employment (already the largest non-agricultural employer of women in India) or it could be through preferential allocation in the NREGA. Next, simple vitamin supplements or protein powders will help improve the nutritional status of women, this could be provided through ration shops throughout the country. Another option is providing access to improved cook stoves. There are several companies and organizations already working on this front.

The only non-option is inaction.

( Climaction is a fortnightly column that is published in MetroPlus Weekend on alternate Fridays. The views expressed in the articles are those of the author.)

The next article in this series will appear on March 4, 2016.

Feedback and questions may be e-mailed to climaction2015@gmail.com

(Mridula Ramesh is the Executive Director of Sundaram Textiles. She is also a student and teacher of global warming.)

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