Explained | Study shows link between domestic violence cases and climate crisis in India

Rising temperatures might result in India experiencing a 23.5% rise in domestic violence cases by 2090— more than Nepal and Pakistan, a new study shows

July 07, 2023 04:06 pm | Updated July 09, 2023 01:34 pm IST

Image for representational purpose only.

Image for representational purpose only. | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: The environmental perils of climate change are worsening social hazards, such as domestic violence. As the average annual temperature increased by 1° C, three South Asian countries — India, Nepal and Pakistan — witnessed a rise of more than 6.3% in incidents of intimate partner violence (IPV), per a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

India in particularregistered the biggest jump among the three nations: for a 1° C rise, physical violence rose by 8% and sexual violence by 7.3%. By 2090, India is projected to will experience the highest increase in IPV — estimated at 23.5%, as compared to Nepal’s 14.8% and Pakistan’s 5.9%.

90% of India falls under the ‘danger zone’ of extreme heat. The punishing Uttar Pradesh heat wave, linked to the deaths of more than 100 people, was made two times more likely due to climate change. The present research builds on evidence that the climate crisis triggers veiled consequences for gender and sexual minorities, tipping the skewed power relations in patriarchal societies out of balance.

What does the study say?

Researchers tracked 1,94,871 girls and women aged 18-49 in three low- and middle-income South Asian countries. They compared data about incidents of IPV (physical, sexual and emotional violence) with temperature fluctuations recorded between 2010 and 2018.

What does intimate-partner violence look like?
Emotional violence: where someone was insulted, humiliated, or threatened by the husband or partner.
Physical violence: where someone was pushed, slapped, punched, kicked, strangled, had hair pulled, or was threatened with a knife by the husband or partner.
Sexual violence: whether the respondent was ever forced into unwanted sex or sexual acts by the husband or partner.

An increase in temperature orchestrates conditions of precarity and aggression: physical violence (23%) was most prevalent, followed by emotional (12.5%) and sexual violence (9.5%). In India, the trend was observed in both urban and rural areas but was more prominent in lower-income households. Under the unlimited emissions scenario laid out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPV would increase by 21% by the end of the 21st century.

Domestic violence remains severely under-reported in most countries due to cultural and infrastructural barriers, obscuring the magnitude of the link. Further, drawing a straight line between climate change and GBV is tricky due to paucity of data, deeply rooted gender inequalities and the complex nature of violence. The research, however, provides “ample epidemiological evidence” to the gendered impact of climate change, highlighting the “vulnerabilities and inequalities of women experiencing IPV in low- and middle-income countries in the context of global climate warming,” authors noted.

Do high temperatures fuel the risk of gender-based violence?

Evidence shows climate conditions affect individual behaviour and social stability. Changes in temperature and precipitation increase the likelihood of assault, murder, riots, even civil war; a global analysis found a 13.2% rise in intergroup conflicts. Online hate speech also rose by 22% when temperatures inched from 42ºC to 45ºC.

What was less understood and captured in numbers is the gendered dimension of this violence. IPV is a crude byproduct of unequal power relations between men and women, rooted in and reinforced by patriarchal structures. Climate-induced stress taps into this value system, casting a greater burden on low- and middle-income countries prone to both climate vulnerability and gender inequality. The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the first time pointed out that “women, girls and LGBTQI people are at increased risk of domestic violence, harassment, sexual violence and trafficking” during and after extreme weather events. Globally, women and girls are 14 times more likely to be harmed during a disaster, per a 2019 analysis.

Climate crisis also fans economic distress: extreme heat affects crop outcomes, or the livelihood of migrant workers takes a hit (extreme heat is expected to cause a 15% fall in the ‘outdoor working capacity’). When the man does not leave the house for work, women and girls are exposed to anger, aggression and violence rooted in gender inequality. A 2021 paper studying Indian natural disasters (the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, cyclones and droughts) found women experienced physical, emotional and sexual violence. Experts attribute this to the patriarchal values of masculinity, where a climate event threatens the role of the male provider who, now experiencing a loss of control and inability to support women, feels threatened. A post-Cyclone Nargis study in Myanmar found men resorted to alcohol, gambling and aggression as a way to cope with pressure— which correlated with a 30% increase in domestic violence.

“The women have internalised [violence] and accepted it as a [man’s] right. What is new is that frustration because of extreme heat or erratic weather...It creates economic hardships for the family and that makes even the traditional situation where wife-beating is the norm, even worse,” Shipli Singh, the director of NGO Bhoomika Vihar, told a media outlet.

This cycle worsens as women in low-income households experience a loss of income and productivity, diminishing their agency, per a 2022 report. If droughts and extreme heat dry up water sources, women need to travel long distances for water, restraining them from pursuing education or employment. Conversely, women who were more educated and from wealthier households reportedly were at lower risk of IPV during extreme weather events.

Domestic violence further rises when women are trapped with abusive partners or families and lack access to financial support and care, activists point out. Complaints peaked at a 10-year high during the COVID-19 lockdown. Heatwaves or erratic weather can further restrict access to shelter homes, police stations or public health centres.

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Since IPV precedes and outlasts extreme weather events, the climate crisis also exacerbates trafficking or forced marriages, which morph into “marriages of survival” as a ‘climate adaptation’ strategy. Heat waves and dry spells in Bangladesh resulted in forced marriages; researchers found families had agreed to less desirable marriage proposals for minor daughters.

In the marshlands of climate-ravaged Sundarbans, a report attributed the violence to “family fragmentation and stress, a loss of livelihoods and support networks, disruption of social norms and controls, displacement into insecure disaster relief camps, and heightened physical and socio-economic precarity.”

The U.N. Environment estimates 80% of the people displaced due to climate change are women. “While they sleep, wash, bathe or dress in emergency shelters, tents or camps, the risk of sexual violence is a tragic reality of their lives as migrants or refugees,” said Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights.

How does extreme weather influence human behaviour?

Outside of unequal power structures, there are also personality, cognitive and biological components at play. According to the “temperature-aggression theory,” hot temperature increases discomfort, frustration and impulsivity, thus scaling up the odds of interpersonal conflict and IPV, per a 2021 study published in Lancet Planetary Health.

“There is growing evidence that extreme heat can affect stress, lower inhibitions, increase aggression, and exacerbate mental illness,” said Michelle Bell, a professor of environmental health at Yale University and a co-author of the study.New evidence also draws a link between extreme weather events such as heatwaves and poorer mental health, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The other hypothesis, called the “routine activity theory,” explains the link in instances when the temperature change does not cause discomfort (when rains bring respite to a drought-hit region, for instance). Instead, the disruption in people’s daily activities due to changes in ambient temperature catalyses violence. Loss of property, disability, minimised social contact, changing migration patterns in a post-disaster setting, access to household resources or loss of economic output were found to “shake household environment” and impact mental well-being. A 2019 paper found men used negative coping mechanisms such as alcohol when households faced water insecurity and economic precarity, increasing the risk of IPV. The authors concluded: “risk has a very gendered nature, and it is women that experience it both in the home and outside”.

How can we prevent violence?

In patriarchal societies such as India, which face staggering climate stress, researchers argue for the need to prepare for “social disasters that might accompany natural disasters.”

This involves recalibrating how we measure adverse climate-related health outcomes, Professor Bell noted, thus going beyond rigid mortality numbers to factor in the dynamic relationship between climate change and IPV. Activists also call for applying a gender lens to climate action and disaster management responses — strengthening IPV infrastructures, building financial resilience, and carving out support systems. Social disasters, they argue, demand a social response; one informed by gender and sexual minorities and the value systems that cage them. Gujarat recently unrolled the world’s first heat insurance scheme, offering a small payout to women to compensate for lost income when temperatures soar.

A failure to act, experts highlight, “can perpetuate the cycle of violence, undermining community resilience to climate change, which further inhibits development progress”.

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