As the number of vagaries of climate extremes increases, so has the disproportionate burden on women and children, finds growing evidence. Policies, however, are yet to catch up and reflect the sensitivities of the unique impact of climate change on women and children.

Talking to Mongabay-India on this subject, Padma Venkataraman, President, Women’s Indian Association, a women’s welfare organisation, said that climate policies are not as gender-sensitive because of “lack of awareness”. Women’s Indian Association is partnering with a GenderCC-Women for Climate Justice’s project, Gender Into Urban Climate Change Initiative to build capacities and make climate policies more gender-sensitive. “In the workshops that we have been conducting with policymakers and government officers on exploring gender and social aspects of climate policies, many officers have agreed that they have never thought about how extreme weather events affect women more,” Venkataraman, who is based in Chennai, told Mongabay-India.

As part of this project, Venkataraman said that they have been analysing the existing policies, holding meetings and workshops with stakeholders, and looking at adaptation and mitigation measures of climate change from the gender lens. This will culminate with drawing up policy recommendations for submission to the state government.

Similar initiatives have been taken by Women’s Indian Association’s Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi chapters. “In Chennai, we have also focussed on women of the fishing community building new skills, how to use technology and why chemicals and plastic are harmful to the sea and them,” she added.

People of different genders, respond differently to climate change-induced events and this is exacerbated by social dynamics. Debabrat Patra of ActionAid said that after cyclone Fani hit Odisha in 2019, they found that “women were the last to enter cyclone shelters and first to leave” despite protocol that women and children need to be evacuated first.

Padma Venkataraman said that when the 2004 Asian tsunami had hit, while most men ran away to save their lives, women went back to get their children and precious belongings, putting their own lives in jeopardy.

Experts underline that women’s response to disasters is different from men’s, and therefore, adaptation measures should be framed accordingly.

Climate-induced migration

In Odisha, villages along the coastline are primarily women-run households as men, mostly 20-45, have migrated to the cities for work. Increasing soil salinity, frequent cyclones and floods, have made agriculture challenging to sustain. So, as the men migrate to pick up work elsewhere, women stay back, taking on the responsibility of children, ageing parents and their farmland, often doing odd jobs to supplement the income.

People of different genders, respond differently to climate change-induced events, exacerbated by social dynamics. Photo credit: Oxfam/ Flickr

Climate Action Network South Asia’s recent report on Climate-induced Displacement and Migration in India states that 4.5 crore people in the country will be forced to migrate by 2050 because of climate disasters, three times more than the present figure.

“Climate change-induced disasters and displacement, and migration increase the burden on women considerably,” adding up to 12-14 hours of work that includes agricultural work and household chores, the report said. “The phenomenon of ‘feminisation’ of agriculture has been observed in all research locations.”

Disproportionate burden

Jyoti Parikh, Director, Integrated Research and Action for Development, in one of her papers, “Is Climate Change a Gender Issue”, highlighted that this disproportionate burden of climate change that women bear should prompt the government to develop strategies to enhance women’s access and control over natural resources.

“Women’s knowledge and participation have been critical in the survival of entire communities in disaster situations therefore, the government should recognise their specialised skills in livelihood management in mitigation and adaptation measures,” she said.

Bidhubhusan Mahapatra of the Population Council further said that there is a need for climate policies to not restrict themselves to a solution-centric approach and adopt a population-centric one. “This solution-centric approach does not take into account the population composition, dynamics, social issues in a community, or the risks that certain high-risk priority groups may be facing,” he said. “It is high time social outcomes are investigated using proper research lens, and policymakers consider those outcomes while planning strategies.”

Mahapatra further said that population-centric research that examines the increased risk of women and children, for example, to trafficking specifically in regions experiencing extreme weather events can enable the creation of safe spaces in the face of climate change.

Grassroots organisations say that women and children in regions struck by natural disasters such as floods every year are highly vulnerable to trafficking.

Children at risk

A Unicef report published in 2021 established a Children’s Climate Risk Index – based on children’s exposure to environmental shocks such as cyclones, floods, and droughts – put India at 7.4 Children’s Climate Risk Index, denoting “extremely high” vulnerability to such disasters.

Most of these environmental hazards, the report said, overlap. This affects children’s access to essential services like health, nutrition, education, and social protection, making them more vulnerable than they already are. However, “only 40% of the extremely high-risk countries have mentioned children and/or youth in their Nationally Determined Contributions”, it said. India is not one of them.

Only 40% of the extremely high-risk countries have mentioned children and/or youth in their Nationally Determined Contributions. India is not one of them. Photo credit: Poul/ Pixahive

Further, according to Save the Children’s latest research, children born in the last year will face two to seven times more extreme weather events than their grandparents – that means more heatwaves, droughts, crop failures, wildfires. There are efforts to address some of these challenges.

The Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change (2015-2020) for instance, under Strategies-Urban Health, mentions its intent to conduct studies to assess linkages between climate change and malnutrition, especially among children. Assam is the most vulnerable to climate change in the Indian Himalayan Region states.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.