Include sexual and reproductive health services in climate change policies

From facing violence to fertility issues, women suffer more due to climate emergencies
Last Updated : 05 June 2023, 08:56 IST
Last Updated : 05 June 2023, 08:56 IST

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Mother of two children, 26-year-old Tukuni (name changed) had a way of managing her menstruation. She would use cloth pads which she, along with other women, would wash in a river that was three kilometres away from her village in Bargarh district, Odisha. Over a period, the river started drying up, forcing them to walk further to a location that was six kilometres away. Even that part of the river is now usually dry, forcing Tukuni and others to look for alternative means.

The impact of Climate Change is all-pervasive, and it is now well-recognised that the world is a warmer place. Heat waves are increasing, as are extreme weather conditions such as sudden and untimely rainfall, cyclones, and floods. Evidence suggests that a health or humanitarian crisis or a natural calamity have one thing in common: their differential impact on vulnerable population groups, particularly women and girls. Gender inequality is primarily to blame for this, which persistent challenges like lack of agency, low participation in the formal workforce, absence of social security, and patriarchal norms which lead to a lack of freedom to take their own decisions.

Data also shows that women — particularly in developing countries — are engaged in physically demanding jobs as farmers and labourers. Around 45-80 per cent of all food production and two-thirds of labour force in this sector in developing countries comprise women. The situation worsens in extreme weather events such as cyclones and floods, which are acute in nature, and have the potential of causing displacement.

Violence Against Women

A UNFPA report states that during disasters such as cyclones and floods, there is an increase in domestic violence, sexual abuse, and other atrocities against women. A study published in The Lancet Planetary Health reported that gender-based violence against women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities could increase ‘during or after extreme events, often related to economic instability, food insecurity, mental stress, disrupted infrastructure, increased exposure to men, tradition and exacerbated gender inequality’.

With the focus shifting to survival, they could be more exposed to unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancies due to disruption in access to essential health services, and face illness, and morbidity. A report by IPAS revealed that women were exposed to serious risks during extreme weather events. What is worse is that they are unable to take decisions on their own and are, therefore, unable to find solutions to their health and other problems. They also reported fishing in waist-deep polluted and dangerous waters and engaging in transactional sex to feed their children and save money for future disasters. The centres where they seek shelter from disasters put them at risk for sexual harassment and rape due to crowded conditions, poor security, electricity disruption, and lack of separate toilets.

Fertility Issues

Women also reported that Climate Change was a reason which has influenced their ‘fertility intention’. While some women said they had postponed having children due to the fear of losing them in disasters, others said they would like to have more children as they would not like to be childless if their child died due to the climate emergency.

Climate Change is also known to cause poor delivery outcomes. A one-degree Celsius increase in the week before the delivery can increase the risk of stillbirths by 6 percent, which means about four additional stillbirths per 10,000 births. With the planet becoming warmer each year than the previous one, and at least 648 million people or around 8 percent of the global population lives in extreme poverty, it makes poor women even more vulnerable to the elements and affects their fertility outcomes.

Climate Change has also lead to the proliferation of the ‘world’s deadliest creature’ — mosquitoes. Mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue are linked to miscarriage, premature birth, and anaemia. A report by the World Mosquito Program says that extreme weather events have been creating a favourable environment for mosquitoes to breed, and expanding their reach across ‘higher latitudes and altitudes’. Vector-borne diseases such as Zika virus can cause severe birth defects among children born to women bitten by zika-carrying mosquitoes.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a grim reminder of the magnitude of impact Climate Change can have on society and on vulnerable population groups. On March 22, the World Health Organization issued an alert describing a possible “emerging pathogen with even deadlier potential” and indicated the need to “be prepared to respond decisively, collectively and equitably”. At a time when the unbridled expansion of societies has exacerbated Climate Change and its multiple consequences, it is the responsibility of the State and society to protect their vulnerable members during their darkest hour.

(Poonam Muttreja is Executive Director, Population Foundation of India.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

Published 05 June 2023, 08:51 IST

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