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Scorching Inequity: How Climate Change Disproportionately Affects Women in India

Extreme heat poses serious health risks to women, including a higher risk of complications during childbirth.

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Climate Change
5 min read
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Hindi Female
"How do poor people like us escape these summers?"
Shareeban, 50, resident of Noor Nagar (South East Delhi)

Although May and June are typically India’s hottest months, summers in the subcontinent have been getting more intense by the year.

The past May recorded some of the hottest days in history with the national capital experiencing back-to-back heatwaves.

In March 2024, over 60 percent of India recorded above-normal maximum temperatures. As the frequency and intensity of heat waves increase, so does their impact.

Notably, no group is more impacted than economically weak women belonging to rural and semi-urban spaces.

"Being a woman is an absolute tragedy, especially when the climate is not favourable. We are not only responsible for ourselves but for the entire household," says Shareeban, 50, a resident of Noor Nagar, South East Delhi.

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'No Place to Hide From Extreme Heat'

A recent study published in Significance Magazine has revealed a troubling gender disparity in India in the context of coping with extreme heat. According to the analysis, women exhibit a heightened susceptibility to extreme temperatures, specifically heat, as compared to men.

"In these heat waves, we suffer from indigestion that leads to vomiting and dysentery. Health goes for a toss and we face blood pressure fluctuations along with fever and frequent headaches. We are constantly restless. Water has become scarce," says Shareeban.

"I suffer from dizziness, headaches, and body aches because of this heat. I don't feel like eating food either," says 28-year-old Shaheen. "It is much hotter in Delhi than my village in Bihar."

Shaheen, a mother of three, adds that the children get prickly heat rashes during the summer. The mental and physical burden on women also increases as when family members fall sick, it is the woman’s responsibility to look after them."

Extreme heat poses serious health risks to women, including a higher risk of complications during childbirth.

In Picture/ Shaheen, 28, indulged in her daily chores

Mike Pandey, an environmentalist and conservationist says, “Climate change is a serious issue and women get affected by it the most. This is primarily because for our species to survive, food and water security are the quintessential tools and women are its sole providers. Ironically enough, women always become secondary consumers of these survival tools and are usually left with remnants to feed themselves on. This contributes to their health complications and a shorter lifespan.”

Pandey explains that with the rising temperatures, life has become tougher for women and they are complaining more about respiratory issues and low energy. “To cook food in the heat is a challenge and this responsibility also lies with the female of the house. Thus, a woman is more burdened than a man,” the environmentalist explains.

Premature Birth, Menstrual Issues: How Extreme Heat Is Complicating Women’s Health

According to a 2022 UN Women report explaining connections between climate change and gender inequality, rising temperatures have been linked to a higher incidence of stillbirth, and premature births in India.

Dr Uma Vaidyanathan, Director of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, Delhi with over 20 years of experience explains, "in the context of pregnant women, climate change increases the chances of hypertension. Infections during pregnancy can result in anaemia, growth restrictions, diminished nutrient transport, sugar alterations, and increased vulnerability to complications." 

She also says that malnutrition in pregnant women because of a failed crop, increases the chances of adverse reproductive outcomes including preterm delivery which makes the infant more prone to functional defects and mortality.

Pinki, 34, has four children and is pregnant with her fifth. "When I feel hot, I go and take a bath. Sometimes I sleep with my clothes drenched with water to cool down my body," she expresses. "We are poor people, we don't have any coolers, we survive on fans during this heat," Pinki, who has been a resident of the Shram Vihar camp for 20 years, says.  

Meera Raj, 32, mother to one, who has been living in Noor Nagar, South East Delh for decades, says, “Our houses are covered with tin shades and we have no electricity supply. Heat directly enters our house and it feels as if we are living in a fire bowl.” She further adds, “In such summers, I face added problems during menstruation. I feel discomfort and itching in my vagina.” Her statement finds resonance with Lalita, 21, who lives in the same vicinity. 

Extreme heat poses serious health risks to women, including a higher risk of complications during childbirth.

In Picture/ Pinki, 34, pregnant with her fifth child

'It Doesn't End With Summer'

Madeena, a 30-year-old mother of five and resident of Shram Vihar camp, South East Delhi, adds, "We suffer in summers due to lack of drinking water. Once the monsoon hits, we suffer additional problems related to flooding. Water enters our homes, making survival a challenge yet again."

Explaining the biological effects of climate change on women, Dr Vaidyanathan says, “Rural women are subject to direct effects of climate change. Global warming leads to skin issues, heat strokes, dehydration, and increased mortality rates among women.”

During the monsoons, crowded urban areas- particularly slums- experience frequent and heavy flooding. Due to the lack of proper infrastructure, toilets are often rendered unusable in such conditions. Unlike men, women find it difficult to relieve themselves outdoors, making them more susceptible to UTI (Urinary Tract Infection) and other infections, especially during menstruation.

Extreme heat poses serious health risks to women, including a higher risk of complications during childbirth.

In picture/ Madeena, 30, with her son

According to Dr Vaidyanathan, contracting vector borne diseases during pregnancy increases mortality rate, the risk of C-section delivery, high blood pressure, and growth restrictions.

However, she adds, "I cannot say that all these effects are solely due to climate change, but I am seeing a growth in them every day. It is routine to see pregnant patients with high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, low birth rate, and growth restrictions in the foetus.”

She says, "In Delhi, women with these complications visit doctors in the initial stage as they are equipped with resources and hence we are able to control these issues in time. But women in villages don't have access to the resources. Therefore, there are more complications in pregnancy in marginalized women which may be due to climate change.”

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We Need to Re-evaluate How We Approach Climate Change

Environmentalist Mike Pandey concludes, “Survival is on the odds now. We are losing people. Thus, it is high time for us to indulge in collective action. The tragedy is that although we are the most intelligent species on the planet, we are shooting our own foot.” He adds that ‘consumerism’ and man’s greed have led to this plight and the idea of sustainability has been lost.

Pandey says, “Women are the most adaptable species; however, the world has failed to give them that space, and the leaders are not willing to give them a helping hand to adapt.” He says, “It is the women, the generator of emotions, food, and water that need to be strengthened and there has to be a transformation in the value system in order to face climate change.”

(Shriya Sharma is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. She reports on issues of public policy, gender, environment and culture. Samiya Chopra is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She reports on culture, gender and health.)

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