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Study shows how climate change aggravates vulnerability of women in rural India

A recent study finds that climate change induced extreme weather events such as droughts can increase the vulnerability of women to intimate partner violence and that women are hit the hardest due to lack of clean water and changes in diet. The study found that women residing in drought-affected areas were more likely to experience physical, sexual, and emotional partner violence than those living in non-drought areas. This article is by Aarti Kelkar Khambete

Overworked, underpaid and unrecognised: Women in rural India
Women in agricultural societies continue to face the double burden of household work and work in the farms. The daily drudgery of carrying water from long distances, collecting firewood, cleaning, cooking and taking care of the family besides performing the backbreaking manual tasks of working in the farms takes a toll on their health. However, women continue to be unrecognised as farmers with no rights to the lands on which they work and their work continues to remain invisible at the policy level.

Climate change and women
Climate change has been found to further exacerbate the burden of women. For example, climate change induced extreme weather events such as droughts, while having adverse effects on people’s physical and mental health affects women even more than men owing to multiple social, political, and cultural factors. This is because many of the tasks that women do require interactions with natural resources affected by drought. Women in rural areas are at particular risk, as there is typically more interface with the environmental risks.

What are droughts and how are they defined? A drought can be defined as: “An extended period—a season, a year, or several years—of deficient precipitation compared to the statistical multi-year average for a region that results in water shortage for some activity, group, or environmental sector”.

Droughts are classified into the following categories:

  • Meteorological droughts occur when there are long gaps in normal rainfall and are measured based on the degree of dryness and the duration of the dry period.
  • Agricultural droughts occur when there is insufficient soil moisture to meet the needs of a crop at a particular time. Agricultural drought usually follows meteorological drought and occurs before a hydrological drought. Agricultural drought can be measured through indicators such as lack of rainfall, changes in evapo-transpiration, soil water deficits, reduced groundwater or reservoir levels etc.
  • Hydrological droughts are the result of surface and subsurface water supplies from streams, rivers and lakes becoming scarce due to scanty rainfall. The frequency and severity of hydrological droughts are defined at the watershed or river basin scale and are influenced by factors such as land degradation or land use changes, construction of dams etc.
  • Socio-economic droughts occur when water shortage starts to affect people’s lives, individually and collectively.

This classification of droughts is very useful to measure drought frequency, severity, and duration.

Droughts affect women more adversely than men
Studies show that droughts affect women more adversely and women are hit the hardest due to lack of clean water and changes in diet. They suffer from a range of health problems such as fever, weakness and reproductive health issues. Drought-induced crop and income losses force many women, especially from poor tribal areas to take up less productive and low-remunerative activities such as subsistence farming, collecting forest produce, undertaking seasonal works and participating in public employment. Women compromise the most when it comes to food distribution in times of crisis and they cope by eating less or adjusting portions of food. 

Droughts and intimate partner violence
There is also a growing body of evidence that has highlighted the linkages between extreme climate shocks and women’s experience of violence, including intimate partner violence (IPV), sexual assault, female genital mutilation, honor killing, and the trafficking of women. However, few studies have examined the relationship between droughts and IPV informs this paper titled ‘Climate and gender: Association between droughts and Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)’ authored by Nabamallika Dehingia, Lotus McDougal, Jay G. Silverman, Elizabeth Reed, Lianne Urada, Julian McAuley, Abhishek Singh and Anita Raj published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

All prior studies that have looked at the relationship between drought and IPV have used meteorological drought, which fails to capture the actual impacts felt by the community due to the rainfall-related aberrations. This study used two separate definitions of drought —meteorological or precipitation-based drought and socioeconomic drought — for a robust assessment of the relationship between drought and IPV.

India has experienced two major drought periods since 1990, in 1997-2004 and 2011-2015. India was also found to be one of the severely drought-impacted countries for 2020-2022, with two-thirds of the country’s land area experiencing droughts. In addition to extreme health and social impacts, drought episodes during 1998–2017 were estimated to reduce India’s gross domestic product by 2–5 percent.

There are significant differences across the country with regard to precipitation levels and drought status, and in many areas not historically prone to drought, precipitation levels have been decreasing consistently over the past 10 years. The study analysed data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) from the nationally representative household surveys conducted in 2015-2016 (NFHS-4) and 2019-2021 (NFHS-5).

Findings
The study found that women residing in drought-affected areas were more likely to experience physical, sexual, and emotional partner violence, than those living in non-drought areas. The findings also confirmed of the intersectional nature of drought consequences. Thus, women who were socially marginalised were at higher risk of IPV victimisation due to droughts. Droughts that had an apparent and immediate economic impact in communities increased women’s vulnerability to experiencing different forms of IPV. Also women residing in areas classified as drought-impacted by the government were more likely to report physical IPV, sexual IPV, and emotional IPV.

These findings support the growing body of evidence regarding the relationship between climate change and women’s vulnerability, and highlight the need for gender responsive strategies for disaster management and preparedness in the future, argues the paper.

(Courtesy: indiawaterportal.org)

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